November 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I. Fighting came to a close in Europe on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when Germany signed an armistice with the Allied forces. At the war’s conclusion, over 70,000 American soldiers lay scatted in graves across war-torn Europe.
In August of 1917, after the United States entered World War I, the government created the Graves Registration Service to provide assistance with handling and recording the growing number of soldiers killed in Europe. Soldiers were initially interred in temporary graves. Combat units typically undertook this duty; graves registration personnel provided assistance by locating, marking, maintaining, and registering the location of graves. The French government provided land for temporary cemeteries that were far enough away from the battle lines to prevent the graves from being disturbed. In reality, however, soldiers were often buried along the front lines, near where they fell, which led to isolated or small groupings of graves spread over wide areas.
After the war’s conclusion, scattered and isolated graves were consolidated into larger temporary cemeteries to make the task of maintaining the graves more manageable for the Graves Registration Service.
The United States adopted a policy allowing for the next of kin to determine the final resting place of each deceased soldier, either repatriating the body to the United States or other area for re-interment in a local private or national cemetery or re-interring the body in a government owned, permanent cemetery in Europe. By 1923, eight permanent cemeteries had been created, six in France, and one each in Belgium and England, to act as the final resting place for those soldiers who were to remain buried in Europe.
The Cartographic Branch holds numerous records relating to World War I, and specifically the activities of the Graves Registration Service.
One series, Initial Burial Plats for World War I American Soldiers, consists of blueprints of survey maps and field drawings created by the 29th Army Corps of Engineers for the Graves Registration Service. The maps detail locations of scattered and isolated soldier grave sites. Each grave is identified by the soldier’s name, rank, serial number, and unit, if known. The plats also show surrounding landmarks, buildings, and other markers that could be used to identify the location of the burial.
The survey dates to 1919 and is arranged into four Plat Books labeled A, B, C, and D. A partial finding aid is available for the plats, which lists the soldier’s name and other information, along with the Plat Book and Plat Number. The listing includes data for approximately 18,000 soldiers, but is incomplete. It can be downloaded as a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet by clicking the following link: RG 92 Grave Registration by Name.
The Initial Burial Plats for World War I American Soldiers series has recently been digitized and is now available online through the National Archives Catalog. To browse the plats, click the blue hyperlink that says “4 file unit(s) described in catalog” once you are on the main entry page for this series. This is circled on the image below:
Next, click on Plat Book A, B, C or D (text is a blue hyperlink). The images will now display at the top of the catalog entry for the selected Plat Book. You can scroll through them, or click on individual images to enlarge them for viewing. To ensure that you see all of the small thumbnails of the scans, click load all (see arrow below). You can also download images from the catalog.
A second related series held by the Cartographic Branch is Maps and Plans of Temporary American Expeditionary Force Cemeteries. This series consists of maps and plans showing graves at temporary World War I cemeteries. A finding aid is available, which lists the temporary cemeteries for which the Cartographic Branch holds plans. It is also available at the following link: RG 92 – Maps of Temporary American Grave Sites Overseas, WWI. This series has not been digitized at this time, but these maps are available to view in person in the Cartographic Research Room at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
These two series represent only a tiny portion of World War I and Graves Registration Service records available at the National Archives.
See other blog posts about World War I records held by Special Media at the National Archives:
For more information on other closely related records that have recently been digitized, see The Text Message’s blog post on Burial Cards of World War I Soldiers.
Hatzinger, Kyle J. Establishing the American Way of Death: World War I and the
Foundation of the United States’ Policy Toward the Repatriation and Burial of Its Battlefield Dead. Thesis. University of North Texas. August 2015. Accessed November 2, 2018.
Hirrel, Leo P. “The beginnings of the Quartermaster Graves Registration Service” Army Sustainment. (July-August 2014). Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.army.mil/article/128693/the_beginnings_of_the_quartermaster_graves_registration_service
“History.” American Battle Monuments Commission. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.abmc.gov/about-us/history
Potter, Constance. “Graves Registration Card Registers, 1917-22.” The United States World War One Centennial Commission. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/commemorate/family-ties/documenting-doughboys/2223-graves-registration-card-registers-1917-22.html