Remains of German Soldiers from WW1 Found in France

Entrance to another First World War German tunnel in the Champagne region in France

Archaeologists in the Alsace region in north eastern France recently discovered the bodies of 21 German soldiers from the First World War in an underground shelter that has not been touched since it was destroyed in a French attack in March 1918. The site was first discovered in October 2010 during excavation work for a road building project. War causalities are still frequently found during construction work on the former western front battlefields of France and Belgium; however, the discovery of so many bodies in a single location is particularly unusual.

The regional French archaeological authority P.A.I.R. (Pole d’Archéologie Interdepartmental Rhénan) began a thorough dig last month. The French archaeologist leading the dig, Michaël Landolt, compared the site to Pompeii:

Everything collapsed in seconds and is just the way it was at the time. This is an extraordinary find.

The ‘Killian Shelter’ was a 125-metre-long tunnel, six metres underground. It was 1.80 metres high, had 16 exits, and was big enough to shelter 500 men. Similarly to other First World War German shelters and camps, it was equipped with heating, telephone connections, electricity, beds and a pipe to pump out water. It is believed that 34 men from the 6th Company of the ‘Reserve Infanterie Regiment 942’ in the shelter were killed during the attack. 13 bodies were removed from the shelter at the time; 21 remained trapped beneath the rubble.

Archaeologists have now uncovered the sides, floors and stairways of the shelter, all made from heavy timber. They have found boots, helmets and weapons, a wine bottle, personal items including wallets, pipes, cigarette cases, spectacles, pocket books and a rosary with a French bullet threaded in among the prayer beads, as well as the skeleton of a goat which was presumably held as a source of fresh milk.

Jürgen Ehret, a German who is assisting the French authorities in the excavation, described the French attack:

The French attacked the shelter with aerial mines with delayed-action fuses that penetrated the ground and blasted in the side wall of the shelter in two points.

The attack lasted six hours.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is what the discovery reveals about the ways in which the First World War is, and has been, remembered in the different countries involved in the conflict. In Britain, a multitude of books have been written about the war, numerous films and plays have been produced, veterans such as Harry Patch became celebrity figures and were revered as heroes, and the discovery of remains of soldiers would have undoubtedly made the headlines. When the bodies of British and Australian soldiers were discovered in Fromelles in 2008, for example, a large-scale project was launched to excavate the mass grave in which they were buried, identify the bodies and rebury them in individual graves in a new propose-built cemetery.

Arguably, many more bodies were found in Fromelles; however, the recent discovery of German soldiers in Alsace only reached the inside pages of just a few newspapers in Germany. It reveals a great deal about how Germany has dealt with the memory of the First World War: it has largely been eclipsed by the Second World War and the guilt and horror of the Nazi regime and Holocaust.

According to Fritz Kirchmeier, spokesman for the German War Graves Commission:

Britain, France and Belgium still refer to [the First World War] as the Great War, but our memory of it is totally buried by World War II with the Holocaust, the expulsion from the east, the Allied bombardment. World War I plays only a minor role in the German national memory.

The Commission is not hopeful that it will be able to track down the families of the dead. But the names and dates and places of birth of all 21 soldiers are known. They include Musketeer Martin Heidrich from Schonfeld, who died aged 20; Private Harry Bierkamp born on January 18th, 1896, in Hamburg; and Lieutenant August Hutten from Aachen, who died aged 37. Their names are inscribed on a memorial stone in the nearby German war cemetery of Illfurth. Unless the Commission manages to contact the families and they request the bodies to be repatriated to Germany, it plans to bury the bodies in the cemetery in Illfurth.  

The remains of around 10 to 20 German soldiers from the First World War are usually found in France and Belgium each year; an average of 35 Commonwealth soldiers are discovered each year. It is estimated that over 165,000 Commonwealth soldiers are still unaccounted for on the Western Front.

Particularly relevant is Tim Grady's article 'Germany's Jewish Soldiers' in the November issue of History Today, in which he considers how postwar Germany has remembered the contribution of its Jewish soldiers during the First World War.

Listen to Tim Grady discussing how the Jewish soldiers who fought for Germany in the First World War were remembered during the Nazi regime in the November edition of the History Today Podcast.