(Originally posted June 10, 2018) One of the original documents that I am carrying on this trip is a letter from the Red Cross to Eben Bradbury’s father. Sent on February 28, 1919, this letter identifies the location of the body of his son, Eben Bradbury, Jr.
Prior to World War I, battlefield casualties had been handled by the Quartermasters Office, with overlapping responsibilities by the Burial Corps and United States Army Morgue and Office of Identification. In August, 1917, just four months after the United States joined the war, General Pershing ordered the formation of the Graves Registration Service (GRS), and the first of these units reached France two months later. To me, the great mystery of Eben’s death is in the terrible months between the event and its report. Eben’s family spent a frantic summer looking for any information about him, only to find out that he had been dead since June, when his father’s letters were returned in September, marked “Killed in Action”. None of his effects were ever returned, though his father wrote increasingly angry letters to anyone he could think of before going completely and eternally silent on the subject of his son. Because of this, I went deep into the murky world of battlefield remains in World War I, looking for any evidence I could find of what had happened to Eben’s body after his death. The GRS was not in Belleau Wood to bury Eben Bradbury. Not the first time, anyway. His body may have remained in the wheat field “just short of the woods” where he died, for as long as two weeks. Belleau Wood was not completely in American hands until June 26.
Soldiers buried each other on the battlefield. The image above, taken by an American machine gunner, shows unidentified marines in the field, awaiting a burial detail. If the ground where they fell was taken, they were buried as soon as possible, and their grave marked. Sometimes both sides would allow burial parties to gather their dead without firing on them, but no such truce was reported at Belleau Wood. On the contrary, the ground was so hotly contested that most battlefield records report the presence of corpses from previous days, lying where they fell. I do not know whether the Lucy de Bocage cemetery shown below is Eben’s first grave, but it is near where he died. It was certainly his first recorded burial place, which the GRS noted and sent on to the Red Cross in February, 1919. There were dozens of small cemeteries near Belleau Wood – by the end of the battle on June 26, more than ten thousand men were dead.
Some time after this letter, the graves all around Belleau were consolidated into the Aisne Marne cemetery 1764, located just downhill from the current Aisne Marne American Cemetery. Eben was moved to grave I52, plot 3, sector B. These graves can be seen in the opening shots of the film below, as the bodies were moved yet again in 1922. Another letter I have in my possession is a rather crisply worded reminder to Eben’s father in 1922 that he had not responded to the GRS request as to the “Disposition of remains”. Some seventy percent of those killed in action were returned home. I don’t know why Eben’s family decided to leave him in France, but they did, and so he was reburied in his permanent location in the Aisne Marne American Cemetery on November 17, 1922. This is where I visited him today, row 7, number 84. Shane Williams, the superintendent of the cemetery, sent me on a hunt to find film footage in the National Archives of the GRS performing their important, if sometimes grisly work. To my great astonishment, the film footage available is taken from Belleau Wood and the surrounding area, and it is pretty graphic. If you can take it, watch this, and remember that under each one of those pristine marble crosses is a real body, sacred to someone. There are bones.
The gorgeous photographs here were taken by Cynthia August, www.cynthiaaugust.com. The silly selfies and blurry bits were taken by me.