Using Forensic Archaeology to identify fallen soldiers from WW2

Yesterday a serviceman who had been missing since the first day of the Somme, Sergeant David Harkness Blakey of the 11th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was reburied with full military honours after his body was accidentally uncovered during a road widening project in Thiepval, France. As it happened, according to the Belfast Telegraph, Sergeant Blakey was heartbreakingly easy to identify, since he was wearing a home-made metal identity tag believed to have been lovingly crafted by his wife. However, the father of three, who was just 26 when he was killed in a foreign land on July 1st 1916, is only the fifth soldier in 10 years to be identified using personal items; usually it is much harder to attach a name to a fallen warrior.

Cecily Cropper, one of Forces War Records’ own Data Entry Team staff, trained in Archaeology and worked for eight years helping to identify victims of war in Eastern Europe before she came to work for the company. During this period she was also involved in assessing World War One large-scale burial pits in Northern France, and in the September 2015 issue of ‘Forces War Records Magazine’, she gave an interview explaining just how this identification is carried out.

Cecily Cropper out in the field

‘Meet the Experts’ interview with Cecily Cropper:

You studied archaeology, and later went into the field of forensic archaeology. What was it that sparked your interest in those fields?

I think a pivotal event was the family visit to the British Museum in 1972 to see the Tutankhamun exhibition. We queued for hours but I remember the first object that faced us when we walked through the doors was the golden death mask; it was magical.

However, it was the war in Kosovo in 1999 that finally shook me into working with the more recent past. I felt compelled to become involved and I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to work with the UN in Bosnia in 1999. The team excavated the mass graves that had been used to bury victims of the war in the former Yugoslavia during the first half of the 1990s.

Can you tell us a bit more about how the process of recovering war victims in Eastern Europe worked?

From 1999 I worked predominantly in Bosnia and Kosovo, but also Croatia and Serbia. The forensic teams recovered both civilian and military personnel from these conflicts. Although the majority were civilian, war crimes and crimes against humanity apply to all involved, and those committed against military personnel were also investigated.

Once a body is found and recovered, the next step is to go through both anthropological analysis and autopsy. This provides supporting data for a proper identification and also cause and manner of death. DNA is taken and is compared with DNA from presumptive family members. One of the problems for identification is the moving of bodies either from grave to grave or from country to country. Some victims of the war in Kosovo were buried in Serbia, for example. A positive scientific identification allows the body to be returned, or repatriated to the family. Tens of thousands were killed in the former Yugoslavia so this is an ongoing and painstaking process.

Cecily hard at work on site in Kosovo 

You also spent time working in Northern France on a WWI site. Can you explain what sort of evidence an archaeologist can find that might help to identify a soldier?

In July of 1916 Australian soldiers of the 5th Australian Division and British soldiers of the 61st South Midland Division were killed during the Battle of Fromelles and buried by German soldiers in a series of burial pits adjacent to Pheasant Wood. I was involved in the assessment of the site that confirmed the presence of bodies and also the nationality, through artefacts such as cap badges and buttons.

The level of preservation within the graves at Fromelles was remarkable, and this was due to the clay soils. Artefacts that survived included leather boots and bandoliers (still containing live rounds), cotton items such as puttees or puttee threads and webbing. Some first aid items were found, including a rubber tourniquet and a safety pin that had once held a bandage, and there were various models of gas mask. Pockets had contained match boxes, paper items and personal items.

The bodies have been fully recovered and most have been identified through a careful combined process of DNA analysis and genealogical research, and a new Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery has been established.

The UN and the military working to recover bodies from a cemetery in Kosovo

It’s quite a leap from forensic archaeology to military genealogy. What was it that made you move away from your first love in this particular direction?

Yes, it is a big leap. In Kosovo I had trained a local team to recover human remains and believed that they needed to take ownership of that responsibility themselves. I have some strong views on the presence of internationals in post-conflict countries and think that sometimes they can be a hindrance to progression. I also needed to have some down-time, so I moved to Melksham, saw the job at Forces War Records and knew that this was an opportunity to continue a link with issues and subjects to do with conflict, but in a more gentle manner!

How has your extensive background in forensic archaeology helped to make you a better Data Entry Operator?

What I did develop during my years working abroad in post-conflict countries was a real respect and appreciation for the military and their complex roles, both in combat and as peace-keepers. The WWI burials in France also had a profound effect on me. The nature of the battle itself, the fact that some had received first aid and also that they had been buried with such care and respect was incredibly moving. This first-hand and intimate knowledge of WWI casualties provided the motivation and interest to work on the National Archives’ MH106 collection of medical admissions and discharges. Every entry is an individual who deserves a great deal of respect.

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