Finding the Fallen – Conservation and the First World War
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.
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 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.
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
One of the unnamed soldiers in the mass grave (body 13) carried two paper items that lead to his identification.
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
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
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
For more information on this project please contact Renata Peters
No Man’s Land