Remembering the Missing


The historians who produced 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 35.1% 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.


British Empire Missing were officially tallied as 191,652 or 6% of total British Empire casualties. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) lists on its memorials around the world the names of 397,431 personnel who have no known grave. Thus somewhere around 206,000 were tallied as dead but their remains are unidentified, including lost or buried at sea. The official total of the killed or died is 908,371.


Today the CWGC maintains burial sites in 1,992 locations on the Western Front alone. During the war there were well over 10,000 temporary 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 of these remains are 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 all the CWGC cemeteries there are about 587,000 known burials and 559,000 unknown burials; these numbers include burials from other conflicts.


In 1926 it was determined that there were 4,452 Americans missing (or 1.4% of total US casualties), and all are commemorated by name on memorial walls at American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemetery chapels. Today the actual number is smaller as the remains of a few dozen 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 America to the British Empire, why are the 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.

The image shown is the Memorial to the Missing at Lone Pine ANZAC CWGC Cemetery at Gallipoli. Listed here are 3,268 Australians and 456 New Zealanders. Note the ‘poppies’ beside some names. This memorial is very important to Australian visitors, particularly every April 25th when the Last Post ceremony is held here. In recent years the number of visitors to this event has been so large that space is now allocated by a lottery.





James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and is affiliated with the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Salonika Campaign Society and the Gallipoli Association.