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Experiencing the Centenary
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Around the Great War > The archaeology of the Great War

The archaeology of the Great War

Image locale (image propre et limitée à l'article, invisible en médiathèque)
Empreinte dentaire découverte dans le camp du Borrieswald
© Mission du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale

The start of 1990s saw more and more preventative archaeological digs being carried out over large areas of the countryside on the back of major construction works (motorways, TGV lines). In the regions of the North and East of France, the archaeologists were to be confronted with a  “rediscovery” of remains from the First World War in the areas around the front line.

In the parts of the countryside where the traces of the fighting had been carefully removed by the replanting of crops immediately after the war and by rampant industrialisation, this unexpected discovery of the remains from a period which wasn’t part of their usual archaeological investigations (and which they knew little about) posed a few problems and questions for the archaeologists.

Indeed, besides the fact that the archaeologists weren’t in a position to assess the importance and interest of what they had uncovered, the remains were no numerous that they were disrupting the previously planned work in the same area. Another recurring and less than welcome problem was that of the presence of a lot of unexploded ammunition which was a considerable hindrance to the archaeological work. Lastly, the sad discovery, all too often, of the bodies of soldiers who had died during the fighting raised other questions, often of a more personal kind. At first glance then, this new category of remains seemed to be more  of a “hindrance” than it was interesting, to the extent that these remains could have been returned to the oblivion of History, from where the archaeological survey had unwittingly removed them. What was more, did archaeologists really need to study this period which is so close in time to the present day and for which an awful lot of documentation is already in existence ?

Around two decades to agree the major priorities for research

However, the very work of the archaeologist is supposed to be one driven by instinctive curiosity irrespective of the origin and the age of the remains that are uncovered. A few archaeologists for whom the debate on the interest of carrying out archaeological work in respect of the Great War couldn’t be over soon enough, therefore took another look at these traces which were initially considered a hindrance. It has taken almost two decades to put some flesh and bones on our questions and to agree the main framework for research in this very special area of archaeology. Two principal areas of research, bearing information vital for our understanding of the conflict, have now been clearly identified and there is no doubt that other lines of research will emerge as new investigations are undertaken.

Recovering the traces of an already fragile heritage

As is done for the more ancient periods and populations, the studies which have been made of day to day life, but also of death (which one can also put in this day to day category…) of the soldiers are  rare. In the “funeral” field of investigation, the search of more or less intentional graves of soldiers makes it possible to gain a better understanding of the methods of managing mass deaths. It also sometimes makes it possible to draw attention to extraordinary signs of attentiveness, or even camaraderie, occurring during the burial process. This information is all the more precious as relatively little reference is made to the “rituals” and burial practices in the written documentation of the time. The same is true for the daily life of the soldiers in their most trivial details (type of supplies, quarters, etc.), about which little was written at the time, as the emphasis was on describing the events directly concerning the conflict.

The scheduled archaeological digs which have been carried at the sites of the rest camps behind the front have made it possible to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. The detailed study of how the landfill sites and the camp foundations were filled has made it possible to provide details on the living conditions of the troops as they rested. On a wider scale and in a few isolated areas which have been very well protected by the forest, the production of very precise topographical surveys, notably through the use of an airborne laser scanner (Lidar), has made it possible to obtain details about the complex logistical organisation of a given sector of the front and that to its rear. This work also demonstrates the fragility of this part of our heritage, which although very recent, has already been diminished enough as it is by time and human activity.

On the eve of the commemorations for the Centenary, the archaeology of the Great War has become a fully-fledged archaeological field of research. And even if this hadn’t yet become the case, we would owe to it to ourselves to have at least given some thought to the fleeting and now faint traces of all the soldiers who perished in the hell of the First World War, if only in acknowledgement of the sacrifice which they were so willing to make.

For further information:
Desfossés 2008: DESFOSSES (Y.), JACQUES (A.) and PRILAUX (G.) – L’archéologie de la Grande Guerre.(The Archaeology of the Great War)  Collection Histoire. Editions Ouest-France, 2008. 127 p.