The forces of the British Empire suffered over half a million dead, wounded and missing in the fighting at Ypres during the First World War. Ypres was a lynchpin to operations on the Flanders front and five great battles raged around the city during the war. People from all over the world served here and the communities from which they came would have been touched by the terrible news from ‘The Salient’. It is no wonder that Ypres came to be a sacred and hallowed place, and a focal point for a nation and an empire’s grief.
Many who died could not be reached during the fighting and, at the end of the war, tens of thousands of men lay unburied on the battlefields. After the Armistice in November 1918, work began in earnest to recover the dead and provide them with a fitting burial in one of the formal cemeteries that were being constructed under the direction of the IWGC.
But the process of recovery and identification would not be easy...
Military objects like these littered the battlefields at the end of the war and are still commonly found today. When they are discovered with a body, they often provide only the barest information about the casualty – perhaps the nationality or a clue to date of death, based on the manufacturing dates of the equipment. The condition of discovered artefacts depends upon local environmental and soil conditions. Metal deteriorates quickly in wet soil, while other items like leather and wood are preserved. This metal helmet was found in dry soil and so has survived well.
These are some of the most common items recovered when a casualty of the First World War is found: coins, buttons and regimental insignia. They often help identify an individual’s nationality or regiment, but rarely give enough clues to provide an identification. These items were recovered with the remains of an Australian soldier discovered in the Ypres salient in 2015.
Day-to-day objects are often found with remains. While these offer little information regarding an individual’s identity, they provide an insight into everyday life on the Western Front. The toothbrush, toothpaste tube, button polisher guard and water canteen seen here speak of the daily battle soldiers faced to stay clean in the trenches. The small glass ampoule contains iodine disinfectant. Many millions were made but precious few of these fragile items survive today.
The most personal
Sometimes deeply personal artefacts are discovered with remains. Although often heartbreaking, personal effects can be the best way to discover the identity of a serviceman. These four items were recovered from different sets of remains, although only two of these were identified. The ID disc and ring belonged to Sergeant Sylvester Mullen and Private William Arrowsmith respectively, but the identities of the soldier who carried the good luck charm around his neck, or the soldier who kept a locket with a photograph of a loved one in his pocket, remain unknown.