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Mystery of thousands of 'unknown soldiers' lying in WWI graves could finally be resolved after aston


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They are the unknown soldiers laid to rest in anonymous graves after dying in the bloody battlefields and trenches of the Great War.

But the identities of tens of thousands of First World War soldiers buried in tombs marked ‘Unknown Soldier’ or ‘Known Only Unto God’ could finally be revealed after the discovery of a vast forgotten archive.

The data looks sure to provide great comfort to those thousands of British families who know they have a relative who died in the 'war to end wars', but have never been able to pinpoint the final resting place of their remains.

British historian Peter Barton unearthed the staggering archive, virtually untouched since 1918, in the basement of the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva. The international organisation knew it had a vast amount of information stored there, but Mr Barton is the first researcher to study it in detail.

The archive documents information about the death, burial and capture of more than 20 million soldiers from 30 countries who took part in the 1914-1918 war.

Carefully entered on card indexes or written into ledgers, the details include name, rank, unit, time of death, exact burial location, home addresses and next of kin.

Some of the records, in immaculate condition, refer to the sites of mass graves where the bodies of numerous soldiers were piled in alongside each other, rather be given an individual plot.


They give detailed directions to where they were dug - many have since been overgrown or built on - and include details which could lead to the identification of soldiers buried in them.

Mr Barton said it was the Great War’s equivalent of the discovery of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun.


He said: 'The emergence of this archive is hugely important. It will change the way we look at World War One. There was great care taken by the Germans in not only burying these men but also notifying the Red Cross.

'To a military historian it’s like finding Tutankhamun’s tomb and the terracotta warriors on the same day. We’re talking about over 20 million individual names.

'It states exactly where these men were found and where they were buried.

'This archive has been hidden away - not deliberately - for 90 years. We historians just did not know that this existed. The Red Cross tells me I am the first researcher who has ever asked to see it.'

Mr Barton, a First World War historian and author, stumbled across the records after being commissioned by the Australian government to find the identities of Australian soldiers found at Pheasant Wood, Fromelles, France.

The trail led him to the Red Cross Museum in Geneva where he was given access to their basement.


The records had been passed to the Red Cross by the combatant countries at the end of the war. The Red Cross acted as a go-between for the protagonists.

Information was then copied and passed to the soldiers’ home countries but, according to Mr Barton, the UK’s data no longer exists, much of it having been destroyed in the Second World War. The same fate is believed to have befallen the records held in France and Germany.

The information has the potential to pinpoint where many of the dead were buried along the Western Front and other battlefields, and could mean headstones which currently state it is the grave of an "unknown soldier" will finally be engraved with a name.

It also paves the way for families to trace the history of their relatives who fought in the war and died in the bitter trench fighting.

The names of the missing line the walls of memorials across France and Belgium, and until now, the trails followed by new generations ended with family histories still incomplete.

The fragile documents now being examined could provide the missing pieces of a jigsaw, and the Red Cross is already working to bring the archive into the computer age.

The organisation has set aside Swiss Francs 4 million (£2.4 million) to conserve and digitise the paper records.

The project will begin in the autumn and will involve experts from around Europe.

The Red Cross hopes to have the archive online by 2014, the centenary of World War 1.


A spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Geneva said: “We want to archive these records because it will be far easier for families to access the information they require.

'They hold an incredible amount of detail.'

The careful record-keeping extended through World War Two and more recent conflicts and is held in vast archives at the Red Cross inGeneva.

Many of Britain's original First World War records were destroyed in 1940 by a German bomber.

About 60 per cent of the documents relating to five million British soldiers were burnt during a German raid on the War Office in September 1940.

All surviving records then became known as 'the burnt collection', while the War Office tried to fill the gaps by calling on other Government departments to donate any duplicates they had kept.

The fullest collection came from the Ministry of Pensions, which had collected medical documents relating to soldiers' discharge, injuries and disability.

The First World War was the largest war in history with more than 70 million military personnel mobilized. Over 15 million people were killed, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.



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