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Finding the Fallen – Conservation and the First World War



Trench at Loos Figure 1 - NML’s archaeologists excavating a trench in the site of Loos (photo courtesy of NML)

Conservation staff and students at the Institute of Archaeology performed investigative conservation on a group of objects excavated in First World War trenches in France and Belgium. These objects were associated with unidentified human remains thought to be of soldiers killed in battles between 1914 and 18. The material was excavated by No Man’s Land, an association of archaeologists and historians based in the United Kingdom, who worked in collaboration with Yap Films Productions, the sponsors and coordinators of the project. The excavations were carried out in Crossroads, Bikschote, Serre, Loos and Passchendaele, all important First World War battlefields on the Western Front in Belgium and France.

Conserved Objects Figure 2 - Some of the 84 objects received for investigative conservation

The conservation input consisted of performing investigative conservation techniques on some of the excavated finds in order to help to identify the human remains with which they were associated. Eighty-four objects were received altogether, all of which were documented, examined, analysed and conserved by students and members of staff in a period of four months in 2005.

Investigative Conservation

Investigative conservation can unlock information contained in the material fabric of objects. Our aim was to reveal information that could lead to the identification of the human remains with which the objects were associated. Most of these objects were produced as military regalia, ammunition and military books. Some of them had initials, names or numbers scratched on, which sometimes provided leads to whom they might have belonged to.

Papers identifying soldier Figure 3 - Paper items that led to identification of soldier, before conservation

Some objects didn’t yield personal information but provided corroborative information. Coins were used to confirm dates and sometimes gave insights on the origins of the soldier or where he had been. Buttons on uniforms were inspected for military insignia that might identify a regiment.

Identification of unnamed human remains
The investigative work conducted at the UCL conservation laboratory had a key role in unlocking the identity of three soldiers. The material we received from the excavations on the Loos battlefield included a number of waterlogged paper items recovered with bodies in a mass grave. Although water logging has lead to the preservation of the artefacts it has also limited the possibilities of separating and reading the pages.

One of the unnamed soldiers in the mass grave (body 13) carried two paper items that lead to his identification.

Conserved Objects Figure 4 - (top) First page of the Sold Buch and detail of personal information ‘Geboren am 20-10-92’ (born on 20-10-92), and (bottom) fragments of a song book for soldiers ‘ALTE UND NEUE SOLDATEN – LIEBER’ and postcard posted in Munich in 1915 to ‘Gefreiter Leopold Rothä …

After conservation it was possible to see that the first item was a Sold Buch. This is a kind of soldier’s pay book, where the soldier’s personal details, wages, vaccinations and leave would be recorded. Unfortunately, most of the information recorded in the Sold Buch could not be read. However, we were fortunate enough to make out his date of birth, 20-10-92.

The second book associated with body 13 was a military song book that did not reveal personal information itself but contained a postcard among its pages. This postcard was sent to a Gefreiter Leopold Rothar___ (we could not make out the last letters) from Munich in 1915. With this information and the date of birth we were able to identify Leopold Rotharmel, born on 20 October 1892 in Munich.

Archives in Munich revealed that Leopold Rothärmel was one of two sons and four daughters of Leopold and Emma Rothärmel. Leopold was a talented musician, a concert master. He had completed his required two year military service prior to August 1914. In February 1915 he was recalled to the army and on 16 April he was sent to the depot of the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division in Santes, France. This date ‘6.4.1915’ and location ‘depot 6. Bayer’ correspond with information recovered from the Sold Buch. On 5 July he was awarded the Iron Cross and two days later he was promoted to the rank of Gefreiter (Lance Corporal). The remains of an Iron Cross ribbon was also identified on one of the excavated tunics.

The records from the 9th Company 16th Bavarian RIR include a report, signed by the company commander on 11 October 1915. It states that on the 3rd October 1915 23 year old Leopold Rotharmel was killed at Auchy by a gun shot to the abdomen. His place of burial was not known. Leopold Rothärmel has now been buried under a named headstone in the Labry German Military Cemetery, France, along with the unknown soldiers from the excavation site. Members of NML attended his funeral, but no living relatives have yet been identified. His family is believed to have vanished in bombing during the Second World War.

Tales of a watch
However, not every lead led to positive identification. This was the case of the information extracted from a watch excavated in the site of Cross Roads. The watch was found in an area thought to have been an English trench and was not associated with any human remains. It had a leather strap on which we found some letters had been inscribed. After preliminary examination it was possible to assert that there were three words present, the last of which we thought could be ‘England’.While work was still being concluded at the UCL conservation laboratories, historical research identified the story of a Welsh soldier killed in that same trench in 1914. The soldier’s last name was England and his father had, shortly after the war, written a letter to British officers asking about his son’s watch. However, our final conclusion was that the three words inscribed on the leather strap were probably ‘Made in England’. Therefore, we could not provide evidence to support the assumption that this was the watch that belonged to John England, the Welsh soldier.

At the opening of the Finding the Fallen exhibition at the National Army Museum (see below) in November 2005, I was introduced to one of John England’s nephews. He told me of his disappointment when he heard our final conclusion. But he also said that the investigations around his uncle’s watch motivated the family to find facts and photographs about his life and that this led them to celebrate John England’s life and achievements.

The identification of Jakob Hönes and Albert Thielecke
We were able to identify two more soldiers from the material received from the excavation in the Serre battlefield. Both Jakob Hönes and Albert Thielecke were identified because of objects they were carrying when they died.

Jakob, a farm worker, was born in 1880 in Munchingen. He and his wife Mane had six children, the last of whom was born after he was recalled to the Army. He was identified following investigative cleaning of an identity disc found with his remains. The identity disc was printed with his regimental details but not his name. He must have been anxious about not being able to be identified as we recovered parts of his name and place of birth scratched on the disc. Subsequently it was found that one of Jakob’s six children was still alive. Ernst Christian Hönes could give few details about his father but was delighted that he had finally been found and would be properly buried. When Jakob Hönes was buried, together with Albert Thielecke at Labry German Military Cemetery, fourteen members of his family attended the ceremony.

Collaboration with Yap Films and National Army Museum
A film crew followed the process from excavation to identification of the human remains and associated artefacts to create a documentary series, ‘Finding the Fallen’ aired on the Discovery Channel in November 2005 and then in August 2005 on UKChannel 5 as ‘Trench Detectives’. The National Army Museum held an associated exhibition, also entitled ‘Finding the Fallen’ (Nov 2005 to Feb 2006) depicting excavations, trench life, and how the investigation work led to identification.

For more information on this project please contact Renata Peters

Thank you very much to all students involved in this project for their hard work and invaluable contribution to the unveiling and understanding of this material. MSc and PhD students (2004 to 2008): Elizabeth Beesley, Cynthia Blechl, Kelly Caldwell, Giovanna Caleel, Hannah Clare, Maria Cardoso, Daniel Cull, Dominica D’Arcangelo, Kelly Domoney, Nichole Doub, Amy Drago, Luisa Duarte, Margrethe Felter, Claire Freer, Jie Gao, Anne Gunnison, Robyn Hayne, He Huang, Alexa Keppler, Kathleen Magill, Tammy Maor, Sharon Peyton, Christie Pohl, Alaina Schmisseur, Arianna Shackle, Elizabeth McCormick, Nyssa Mildwaters, Jennifer Myers, Morgan Nau, Emilia Ralston, Vanessa Saiz Gomes, Nancy Shippen, Melina Smirniou, Cymbeline Storey, Ana Tam, Beth Werrett and Soojung Yoo.

No Man’s Land
Luke Barber, Martin Brown, Peter Chasseaud, Janiek De Gryse, Alastair Fraser, David Kenyon, Keith Maddison, Dan Phillips, Jon Price, Steve Roberts, Andrew Robertshaw, Justin Russell, Alex Sotheran, Ian Wedge, Ralph Whitehead, Shirley Whitfield.

Photo credits
All photos were produced by conservation students and staff involved in the Finding the Fallen project unless when stated otherwise.

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