A reader question: those bodies keep piling up

Andy Tumath writes in, wondering:

“I was wondering if anyone had any information about what happened to soldiers killed on campaign during the early-modern age. I’ve seen documentaries about Napoleon’s Grand Armee’s retreat from Russia, and how the troops who fell during the long march home were either left where they dropped, or were given the most perfunctory of burials.
Was this standard practice? I’d be surprised if there were mass cremations of the fallen, and even more so if any but the highest ranking officers were actually repatriated – but I just can’t think of any grave sites belonging to the early-modern period, even in the Low Countries where war was such an ever-present factor of existence.”

I don’t have time to respond in much detail right now (other than to make a mental note to go back and look at my war and society books), but if someone else wants to chime in and steal my thunder, please do. Citations would also be appreciated.

Off the top of my head, I know that occasionally when siege storms of the covered way were very bloody and unsuccessful, there might be a truce for both sides to gather their dead, since they “lye as thick as ever you saw a flock of sheep.” I also know that empty bread wagons often returned back to their bases behind the front lines with wounded (and possibly dead) soldiers among their cargo.

One other possibility: would military manuals’ discussions of encampments discuss the matter? Is this something camp followers attended to? Presumably the corpses were picked over pretty well by other soldiers, camp followers or even locals.

I don’t know if they had the idea of their body being buried back at home – perhaps some ballads from the period might mention the matter…

Other thoughts?

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7 responses to “A reader question: those bodies keep piling up”

  1. Gene Hughson says :

    Two that come to mind directly are the mass grave found in Lithuania containing French dead from Napoleon’s retreat and the mass burning of the Alamo defenders. I also seem to remember something about skeletons still on the field at Borodino when the French retreated from Moscow.

  2. Björn Thegeby says :

    At Almansa in 1707, the local population was turned out to bury the dead, with the prisoners of war also involved. It makes sense if you want your wheat field back. Plowing goes much better if you don’t step on corpses all the time..

    As I understand it, the method was to dig a big hole and stack them up. Cremation requires a lot of fuel, even if takes less effort once you have it.

  3. Gavin Robinson says :

    I don’t have any specific references, but it’s fairly well known that mass graves are a useful indicator of English Civil War battle sites. Casualties from smaller battles might get a proper burial. Nehemiah Wharton said that all the dead from Powicke Bridge were buried at the local church and entered in the parish register.

  4. jostwald says :

    Skimmed through a few books on individual battles in the Spanish Succession, which spend scant attention on the question (even Corvisier’s book on Malplaquet). In general, it looks like the battlefield must have been picked over pretty well, since officers were sent to find any seriously-wounded survivors that they could recover. The sights, smells and sounds must have been something, particularly after a battle as bloody at Malplaquet.

    After Blenheim in 1704 it looks like local peasants were ordered/paid to bury the dead – undoubtedly enriching themselves a bit in the process.

    I’ll keep looking as I get more time. Probably have a few examples in my database of primary sources.

  5. Björn Thegeby says :

    From major Antonio da Couto’s memoirs, describing the aftermath of Almansa; “The spent several days burying the dead, digging trenches, and in the Snow Well. to do more the burnt many corpses setting fire to them on the Battle field.”

  6. Andy Tumath says :

    Thank you to everyone who contributed to this topic so far, and I hope there is more information out there to be shared. I used to live in Salamanca in Spain, and would often head down to Los Arapiles – it was a good run to get there, and then the silence and the view were just wonderful. But each and every time I asked myself “what’s buried down in that damn field? Musketballs? Cannonballs? The fallen soldiers?” 200 years of ploughing must surely have brought up everything that there is to bring up, but on the other hand, barely a month goes by without some new discovery in a Flanders field or an Anglo-Saxon treasure being unearthed. And it was these thoughts, that for 10 years have been on my mind, that drove me to post the question.

    I’m most interested in the WoSS, so thank you especially to Bjorn for the information on Almansa.

  7. Andy Tumath says :

    A few hours in the National Archives over the weekend allowed me to find the following – relating to the Battle of Zaragoza in 1710 – which sits well with Bjorn’s first comment:
    “Tho I have no Letters from Spain w.ch do give a more ample account of our late Victory near Saragosa, than what I have allready had the honour to write to y.r Ldsp, yet having seen one of the 25th past from Sarragosa, I must beg leave to acquaint yr Ldsp yt in relation to the Enemy’s loss, the people yt buried their dead counted them to be 3600,”

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