A final resting place

4 Graf Hyams
Grave of William Hyams at Buttes New British Cemetery.

Between 26 September and 4 October 1917, thousands were killed at Zonnebeke. Most were buried where they fell. In what are now the chateau grounds, more than 170 Allied soldiers were found. They were mainly Australian and British, although some Canadians and a few South Africans were also exhumed. Most could not be identified.

21 Buttes
Buttes New British Cemetery, where forty bodies from the chateau grounds were reburied.

Exhumation Companies

After the war, the job began of tracing, registering and bringing together the tens of thousands of dead who had not been buried, were only half buried, or had been given temporary field burials. From 1919 to 1921 special army units, generally called exhumation companies, searched avidly for the war dead. It was they who compiled burial return sheets with the coordinates of their exhumations.

In Flanders the exhumation companies faced a major challenge. Some of the dead had been given a field burial during the war, but many had gone missing in the sea of mud around Passchendaele. Subsequent fighting had churned up many of their graves, making the identification of victims particularly difficult.

The bodies that were found at Zonnebeke were taken to large consolidation cemeteries. Today these cemeteries are managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which is responsible for the commemoration of 1.7 million men and women who lost their lives in the service of the Commonwealth during the two world wars.

22 Ontgraving© Commonwealth War Graves Commission
An exhumation company at work at Ypres.

Phases of exhumation

At Zonnebeke the exhumation companies were active for several years. In the grounds of the chateau they found more than 170 war dead, who were reburied over the years.

When they were reburied, little effort was made to group them by unit. This explains why the bodies exhumed in the grounds were taken to eighteen different commonwealth graveyards, usually to whichever consolidation cemeteries were being worked on at that moment.

Around a third were reburied in the nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery and Buttes New British Cemetery. The rest lie in cemeteries spread across the southern Westhoek. Remarkably, between 1935 and 1940 another 32 bodies were transferred to Cement House Cemetery and Bedford House Cemetery. They had been found in the southern area of the grounds during clay extraction.

Kaart 2
Consolidation cemeteries where bodies from the chateau grounds were reburied.

In the field

The exhumation companies searched the former battlefield systematically for the war dead. On terrain marked out with small flags, squads of 32 men worked in groups of four. Each group had rubber gloves, shovels, a pair of pliers, pickets, canvas and rope for wrapping bodies, stretchers, and the dangerous disinfectant cresol.

First of all, possible graves were marked with pickets. This took experience, because only here and there did they find a cross identifying a grave. Important indications were rat holes, remains of equipment, particularly rampant grass, or a blue, grey or black hue to the soil. A much-used instrument was a sharpened rifle cleaning rod, used to test the ground.

During the exhumation, attention was paid above all to pockets in the tunic and trousers, and to the neck and wrists of the body, in an attempt to find identification discs. Equipment or personal property might also provide clues to a man’s identity. Nevertheless, many bodies remained nameless. In the grounds of the chateau, around 60% of those exhumed were never identified.

DSC 1247© MMP1917
British shovel, similar to those used by the exhumation companies.

"Schmücke auch unsere Urne mit dem Eichenkranz" (Decorate our urns too with the Oak Wreath)

Between 26 September and 4 October 1917, thousands were killed on both sides of the front at Zonnebeke. The German Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment 212 suffered particularly high losses, with more than 1,000 dead, wounded and captured.

Since the Germans were not allowed to send exhumation units after the war, their dead were recovered by the British. At Zonnebeke the mortal remains were brought together next to the existing Ehrenfriedhof Nummer 103 at Broodseinde. Little effort was made to identify the dead.

Until 1930 the maintenance of German graves generally left much to be desired. That year the private Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge took charge. After the first major centralization in the 1930s, there was a second regrouping in the 1950s. Today West Flanders has four German concentration cemeteries: Langemark, Vladslo, Menen and Hooglede.

We do not know the final resting place of most of the Germans who died at Zonnebeke. A minority are commemorated today by name on a grave or a monument to the missing.

23 DIG GEM AR 143
The German cemetery Ehrenfriedhof Nummer 103 at Broodseinde in the 1930s. It was cleared in July 1955.
24 Herdenking
The commemorative column in the grounds of the Zonnebeke Chateau.
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