It’s been two years since my original article about the memorials to the missing, beginning with the Lone Pine Commonwealth War (CWGC) Memorial at Gallipoli. In that piece I defined what is meant by ‘Missing’ in WW1. Since then I’ve posted over thirty articles about a variety of the WW1 ‘Memorials to the Missing’, so I thought it might be time to re-rerun the explanation of the concept of ‘Missing’ for the newcomers. As you read you’ll learn that the CWGC has 127 Memorials to the Missing and the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) has just 13. Spoiler alert: I don’t plan to report on every one of the CWGC sites, just the largest and most interesting, with at least one from every theater of conflict.
The historians who advised the producers of the classic BBC/PBS series The Great War (1996) estimated that the total number of personnel reported ‘Missing’ by all combatant forces in WW1 was about 7.75 million, or about 35% of total casualties. In after-action reports the casualties were usually estimated and, as the war progressed, these estimates became less accurate. In fact the only two combatant forces that kept consistently good records at all were the British Empire and the Americans.
The majority of the missing are from the Eastern Front, where (1) there were huge numbers of POW’s taken on both sides, many of whom were never accounted for, (2) there were also large numbers of desertions, also on both sides and (3) almost all casualties were buried in unmarked mass graves.
British Empire Missing in WW1 were officially tallied as 191,652 or 21% of total killed or died. The CWGC lists on its 127 memorials around the world the names of 397,431 personnel who have no known grave. Thus somewhere around 205,779 were tallied as dead but their remains are unidentified, lost or buried at sea. The official total of the fallen was 908,371.
Today the CWGC maintains burial sites in 1,992 locations on the Western Front alone. During the war there were many thousands of temporary cemeteries and individual burial sites, and the consolidation process was inexact. On visiting CWGC cemeteries one is struck by the large number of individual graves which bear no names. Some are even tagged “A Soldier of the Great War”, so some of these remains are certainly French or German.
A British scholar has this rule of thumb: about ½ of the British dead lie in known burial places (not necessarily individual graves), about ¼ are buried in sites but not identified and the remains of the rest have not been found.
In the case of the Americans, the math is much simpler. In 1926 it was determined that there were 4,452 Americans missing (or 3.8% of total US losses), and all are commemorated by name on memorial walls at ABMC cemetery chapels, of which there are just thirteen. Today the actual number of missing is smaller, as the remains of some Americans have subsequently been found. ABMC cemeteries have 30,921 burials, of which 1,674 (5.4%) are marked “Unknown”. At the time of the construction of the permanent cemeteries, American families were given the choice of leaving the remains in the theater or returning them to the US, and by over 2 to 1 they chose to bring them home.
Comparing the British Empire to the U.S.A., why are the American ratios of the missing to total casualties and unknown to known burials so much smaller? The answer is simple: American soldier’s remains didn’t have as much time to get lost. The duration of the combat was much shorter, mostly a little over four months, and the US forces were moving ever forward; the ground wasn’t changing hands, and being relentlessly shelled by both sides.