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"Removing the dead?" Topic


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554 hits since 21 Feb 2017
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Cerdic Supporting Member of TMP21 Feb 2017 11:29 a.m. PST

When did it become common for armies to remove the dead from a battlefield? I know Napoleonic armies just left them where they fell and moved on. By the First World War, the dead were recovered and buried (where practical, obviously!).

So when did the change occur? What was the situation in the Crimean War, for example?

MajorB21 Feb 2017 11:45 a.m. PST

We have records of the dead being buried on or near the battlefield during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP21 Feb 2017 12:15 p.m. PST

Philip of Macedon buried dead soldiers. The Spartans buried their dead. Even without a knowledge of hygiene and bacteria, leaving bodies out to rot just stinks the place up and is bad for morale. It was also easier to bury bodies than try to transport them. There could also be a religious connotation of sending the dead off to the afterlife, whatever that consisted of in their respective worldviews.

mwindsorfw Supporting Member of TMP21 Feb 2017 12:22 p.m. PST

Take a look at "The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead" by Meg Groeling or "A Strange and Blighted Land – Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle" by Gregory Coco. When the armies left Gettysburg (and I assume anywhere else), the place was a basket case. In addition to the dead and wounded, you have dead animals, undertakers, people searching for loved ones, souvenir hunters, military police, burial details, troops rounding up equipment. All of that is going on in a place where food, water, and forage were often depleted or ruined.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP21 Feb 2017 2:28 p.m. PST

Actually, I think if you'll check you'll find Napoleon left the Westphalians at Borodino to bury the dead. They have to be buried, and the armies pick up more of the burden when the battle ends the war or campaign, or in situations like WWI, where the armies don't move. The armies tend to do less burial when they're moving on to fight the nest battle.

But no one moves them far from the battlefield when you have serious numbers of them. We start flying them home when we stop losing hundreds or thousands in a day.

Personal logo herkybird Supporting Member of TMP21 Feb 2017 2:29 p.m. PST

Indeed, the battle of Marathon has burial mounds!

The Spartan women told their menfolk as they went to war…
'Return with your shield, or on it' which says they recovered their dead.

jowady21 Feb 2017 3:47 p.m. PST

Burying the dead from battles at least goes back to Biblical times.

mwindsorfw Supporting Member of TMP21 Feb 2017 3:56 p.m. PST

In some accounts, the dead of the winning side are buried. The other side, not so much. Sometimes, leaving your dead to be eaten by dogs sent a message.

14Bore21 Feb 2017 4:56 p.m. PST

There are many drawings of battle aftermath, soldiers and civilians scavenging the dead and injured but unable to move or defend themselves. I suspect often it was the local population forced to cleanup the corpses if only for health reasons.

Cerdic Supporting Member of TMP22 Feb 2017 12:06 a.m. PST

Maybe the Westphalians didn't do a very good job at Borodino? I've read that there were corpses still on the battlefield months later!

From the responses so far, it seems as though leaving the dead unburied on a battlefield was possibly more of a 18th/19th Century thing, then?

Based on what I have read over the years, I have always thought that it was the local civilian population who cleaned up a battlefield, not the military, and the static nature of the fighting in the First World War forced a change.

Personal logo ochoin Supporting Member of TMP22 Feb 2017 12:12 a.m. PST

Polynesians, in their internecine wars, always removed the dead, one way or another.

For example at the Battle of Kaba in Fiji, in 1855 between Fijian Tui Viti (King) Cakobau and his Tongan allies against his enemies from Rewa and Bau, there were no bodies left after the battle. The losers were eaten.

mwindsorfw Supporting Member of TMP22 Feb 2017 6:56 a.m. PST

Just a note, germs weren't well understood until the 19th century. I'm not sure at what point people associated corpses with disease.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP22 Feb 2017 8:15 a.m. PST

They associate the dead with disease from at least classical times. The gods want people properly buried, and if you ignore the gods' wishes, they send plagues.

I think the Westphalians were just overwhelmed by the task. But they weren't the only ones. Read up on burials at the Little Big Horn for a classic case.

Personal logo piper909 Supporting Member of TMP22 Feb 2017 1:08 p.m. PST

The custom in ancient Greece was for the losing side in a battle (the side that abandoned the field) to formally request permission to recover or bury their dead as an official acknowledgment of defeat. To leave the dead unburied was a serious religious offense, so the onus was on both the loser to face up to facts and the victor to respond magnanimously (plus the winner had the right to erect a trophy on the battlefield). The play "Antigone" explores some of this theme.

Robert is correct, field burials tended to be perfunctory or rushed and it didn't take much disturbance of weather, water, or wild animals to expose shallow graves. Bones were lying scattered around at Little Bighorn for decades after the battle. (And animal carcasses were disposed of even more cavalierly than human remains. Think of the thousands of horses and draft animals dead after a big Napoleonic battle.)

Curious thing about that well-known Spartan aphorism, it contradicts the normal Spartan practice of burying their dead where they fell rather than bringing their bodies home, unlike typical Greek custom. Only a king would be taken back to Sparta for a ceremonial burial -- and even Leonidas had to lie at Thermopylae with his men (on the hillock of their last stand?) for 40 years before his bones were disinterred and taken back to Sparta for reburial in a splendid tomb (now lost, sadly). Perhaps Spartan customs changed over the centuries, once their armies began to operate outside the Peloponnesus for long periods.

14Bore22 Feb 2017 4:12 p.m. PST

There were actually casualties still alive on the Borodino feild on the trip back. Humans have buried the dead before writing was invented.

Personal logo vtsaogames Supporting Member of TMP23 Feb 2017 10:08 a.m. PST

Bodies found on the field afterwards might be a case of quick burials in shallow graves that wash away in the rain or are dug up by animals. Most likely when the numbers of dead are large.

Haitiansoldier23 Feb 2017 1:06 p.m. PST

Depends on the battle. At Waterloo and Gettysburg, burials began shortly after the fighting ended. Since both battles were so bloody, it took a long time to bury all of them.
At Little Bighorn, the dead were buried two days after the battle ended, since there were only 200 of them it took only another day.
At the Alamo, the bodies of the Texans were burned on three funeral pyres, while many Mexican dead were dumped in a mass grave in the town cemetery. At Isandlwana, the Zulus removed their dead and the British dead were not buried for another 5 months!
Removing the dead has been going on for thousands of years. I know at Thermopylae Xerxes had all the Persians buried, but left the Greek bodies to rot.

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