Democracy of Death: The US Army’s Graves Registration Service and its Burial of the World War I Dead
By Kyle Hatzinger
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
I learned about an aspect of World War I by accident and a dose of what I thought at the time was bad luck. My writing about that topic as part of a pursuit towards Ph.D. in History was one of the best mistakes of my life. This winding tale not only demonstrates how the pursuit of historical knowledge can truly be rewarding but also illustrates the breadth of World War I history that we have only begun to illuminate.
I received an assignment to teach History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, in 2012. My preference was to study World War II and was subsequently referred to the University of North Texas to work under a particular professor whose background was in World War II and possessed a relationship with West Point. I arrived armed with research and writing that I conducted years prior about my Great Uncle who, as a B-24 co-pilot in the 8th Air Force, was Missing in Action over Germany in 1944 and eventually determined to be Killed in Action. I wanted to research and write about how the United States Army handled its battlefield dead during and after World War II. This undertaking would fill a historiographical gap but also inform me as to whether or not the Army, through its policies and procedures, acquitted itself well in the case on my Great-Uncle and his crew.
When I arrived at UNT in the Fall of 2013, that professor was gone for what was thought to be a year at another institution. When that visit became extended by another year, I sought out Dr. Geoff Wawro, who took me under his mentorship. When I outlined my proposed topic he simply replied, “I think you should look at World War I.” Begrudgingly, I headed to the National Archives II in College Park, MD for what was to be an eye-opening rendezvous with history. I knew from previous research that by 1945 the Army already possessed a robust plan to locate, identify, and permanently bury its war dead. Following end of the war, it became a matter of setting those plans in motion and confronting challenges that arose. I half-expected the 1918 Army to have followed or at least established a similar methodology. No.
When the lead divisions of the nascent AEF sailed for France in 1917, a cable from General John J. Pershing to the War Department recommended burying all American dead overseas until war’s end as a means of saving precious cargo space. This recommendation originated from Pershing’s chief of the newly formed Graves Registration Service (GRS), Charles Pierce. Pierce had proven his expertise concerning the battlefield dead in the Philippines and was recalled to organize a force to handle the AEF’s dead in France. I quickly noticed that the dead (and their final disposition) garnered much attention from the very beginning of the war.
Concurrent to the formation of the GRS, the Red Cross and an organization called the Purple Cross lobbied Congress to receive contracts to embalm, transport, and bury the dead. Others in the funeral industry saw the potential financial gain to be had and tried to secure their participation in the eventual return and burial of the war dead.
Such quarrels were not limited to private enterprise, however. Following the deaths of Corporal James Gresham, and Privates Thomas Enright and Merle Hay on 3 November 1917, a series of events foreshadowed some of the problems that would affect the GRS’s work.
Following notification of Enright’s death, Enright’s father along with his congressional representative wrote to demand immediate repatriation of Enright’s remains. Meanwhile, a French officer avowed in his eulogy at the graves of the three First Division men declared “We will, therefore, ask that the mortal remains of these young men be left here, be left to us forever.” The War Department declared that it would not repatriate any bodies until after the war and continued to reiterate that fact in condolence letters to families of the overseas dead. The letter did promise that all American dead would return to the United States.
Such language begs the question “How did the United States end up with cemeteries overseas given the above policy?” The answer to that is simple: Theodore Roosevelt.
One of Roosevelt’s sons, Quentin, was shot down and killed on 14 July 1918 near Chamery, France. Charles Pierce wrote the former president to express his condolences and ensure him that Quentin’s body would return home following the war’s end. President Roosevelt responded that he did not want Quentin’s body moved, stating his belief that “Wherever the tree falls there it lie” and his preference that his son “shall continue to lie in the spot where he fell in battle and where the foe buried him.”
The War Department ultimately approved this request and allowed any American family a similar option to the Roosevelts. This compelled the GRS to begin planning for burial operations in Europe as well as repatriations back to the United States. In March 1919, however, France passed a law prohibiting disinterments for a period of three years, providing a catalyst for significant social and political discussions within the United States. Americans took sides as those who believed the bodies of the dead ought to remain buried where they fell met arguments insisting on a total repatriation policy.
A 1920 diplomatic agreement between the United States and France provided for the return of those bodies specifically requested by their families with the remaining bodies (including those unable to be identified) remaining buried in overseas American cemeteries constructed by the Army’s Graves Registration Service.
The return of the World War I dead began in September of 1920. By the end of operations on 29 March 1922, 45,149 bodies had returned to families throughout the United States and countries of ancestral birth. Meanwhile, the GRS continued work consolidating the temporary overseas cemeteries into the eight permanent cemeteries that contain over 32,000 graves. The American Battle Monuments Commission has managed these cemeteries since its creation in March of 1923.
As far back as the creation of the overseas cemeteries, some predicted the challenges that would be borne by families across the United States that tried to visit their son or husband’s grave. By the late 1920s, Gold Star Mothers began lobbying Congress for funded pilgrimages to the overseas burial sites. Congress approved and funded pilgrimages from 1930-1933, with the Quartermaster General assigned to manage the operation’s execution. The Gold Star Mothers’ Pilgrimages gave 6,674 grieving mothers and widows the chance for closure. When the program ended in 1933, the United States was less than a decade away from another war that would produce another generation of Gold Star mothers and present an even greater challenge for the Graves Registration Service. Subsequent wars and advancing technologies have changed how the United States locates, identifies, and buries its war dead, but the guiding principles still largely trace back to the work of the Graves Registration Service during and after World War I.
Kyle Hatzinger received his Ph.D. from the University of North Texas in 2020. His dissertation, Democracy of Death: The US Army’s Graves Registration Service and its Burial of the World War I Dead discusses the social and political forces surrounded American burial efforts during and after World War I. Hatzinger is an active duty Army major currently serving as a Force Manager with the Army’s Command and General Staff College.