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…