When the guns stop firing…

… Jack starts digging.

The Great War is one of the most important subjects for any writer. There can’t be many families in Britain not personally affected, to say nothing of families from the old Empire colonies. Like anyone else with an interest in history, the subject has long fascinated me.

But there is an untold story. When the Great War ended and the guns stopped firing, the work of the British Expeditionary Force was far from over. For months following the Armistice in 1918, Allied soldiers were stationed in Europe undertaking prisoner-of-war escort duties or details at the Paris Peace Conference. Or, in some case, digging graves, exhuming bodies, searching the old battlefields for the remains of the missing.

The battles, of course, are well documented. Even the lesser-known stories (like those of the mining detachments) have been told. But no-one has yet told the story of the men who stayed for up to three years, until the British Army finally packed up and went home in 1921, doing one of the dirtiest, most unpleasant and physically challenging jobs of all.

Of course, the (then) Imperial War Graves Commission was already hard at work landscaping, designing and creating the iconic war cemeteries that ribbon across the old Western Front. But the British Army buried its own; not until the last remains were found, the last hasty battlefield burials re-interred in one of the larger concentration cemeteries, did the army leave the task of maintaining the graves to what has since become the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Of course, as we know all too well, the job was never finished. Bodies are still being found. But at the time of the Armistice there was a huge effort involving large numbers of soldiers, ex-soldiers and labourers, to find and bury every last fallen soldier. The men who undertook this grisly duty – often voluntarily – deserve to have their story added to the annals of Great War history. That is what I intend to do.


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