The Army Graves Service, Western Europe

Timespan and Geography

21 Army Group was the key British force at D-Day and in the subsequent campaign to liberate Europe.  Four months after the European war ended, it was reconstituted as the British Army of the Rhine, the BAOR. The Western Europe Graves Service worked within this military framework, its commanding officer being Lieutenant Colonel Stott.

The British programme of care for the military dead in Western Europe, which included the search for missing airmen, ran from D-Day until 31 December 1951 when the RAF closed down its last office in Berlin.

In this time, the military cemeteries known so well today were constructed in Europe by the Army. When the cemeteries were full, they were handed over to the care of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) with a roll of all the burials and a four-page Handing Over Certificate which listed the most important details of the cemetery and its occupants.

The work on behalf of the dead and the missing was enormously complex and difficult, ranging over a vast geographical region and into Soviet territory as the Cold War began. The Army Graves Service and the associated RAF units worked systematically through an enormous geographical region which stretched ‘from Marseilles to Copenhagen, and through Germany to Warsaw’.* The problems were immense, particularly in Germany, not least because East Germany and East Berlin, together with Czechoslovakia and Poland, had fallen under Soviet control in the last months of the war.

The work for the dead in this vast region was not unique — similar searches, burials and registrations were going on in other ex-theatres of war including Italy. However, the work here was by far the most significant and complex. The wrecked state of North-West Europe, the fraught relationship with the Soviet Union, the difficult issues surrounding the dead and missing in Germany, the length of time which had elapsed since the 1940 campaigns in France and Norway, and the vast losses of the RAF over this territory, all contributed to making it a colossally difficult task.

The work could never have succeeded without the dedicated help of the liberated countries, which had cared for the graves during the war.


* TNA, 171/8653, BAOR HQ, GR&E, War Diary, January to June 1946, appendices for January, Colonel Stott, ‘The BAOR Graves Service: Position as on 19 January 46’, memorandum, 19 January 1946.


Structure of Army Graves Service

ADGR&E (or ADGRE) was the military acronym for the British Army’s Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries, also known as AG13.

Confusingly, the acronym ADGR&E also stood for a job title: Assistant Director, Graves Registration and Enquiries. This reflected Army organisation, there being various sub-directories under the top-level Directorate. The Assistant Director of Graves Registration and Enquiries in Western Europe was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Owen Stott.

Part of the personnel branch of the Army and thus ultimately under the control of the Adjutant General, ADGR&E had two key duties.

The first consisted of registering graves, be they in cemeteries, churchyards, or isolated spots. This registration process was running during heavy fighting during the war, but after the tide of war had passed it took on a huge extra dimension when the burial sites of all British servicemen, from all three Services – Army, Navy, and RAF – were rationalised.

The second was the responsibility for the creation of new Military Cemeteries and the reorganisation of older burial sites where necessary; frequently this involved a considerable number of new registrations, when bodies whose whereabouts had previously been unknown were found, or bodies were moved – or in the official term ‘concentrated’ – to central sites. Once again, this process began during the war, but carried on for several years afterwards.


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