Discovery of Remains at Gallipoli

[Source: Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)]

This guidance note is written with a view to providing prospective visitors to the Gallipoli battlefield area with advice regarding the discovery of remains.

The discovery of remains on any battlefield has been and always will be an emotive subject and no more so than on the Gallipoli Peninsula, where the vast majority of casualties did not receive a formal burial in one of the present 31 constructed war cemeteries. These guidance notes are intended to help the visitor to know what action to take in the event of them finding bone fragments during their visit.

However, it is first worth looking at some of the historical background information in order to gain an understanding as to why so many soldiers rest in the battlefield area, rather than in the cemeteries.

Burial ground information

Commonwealth burials

A great number of graves were constructed during the campaign, but when the last Commonwealth troops withdrew from the Peninsula in December 1915/ January 1916, many unburied casualties had to be left on the battlefield. After November 1918, the Allies were able to return to occupy the Dardanelles. New cemeteries were constructed and the overall number of burial grounds was reduced. A modern cemetery is quite often an amalgamation of four or five original burial plots. When reburial occurred, it was not always possible to find all the remains that had been recorded buried during the time of the battles. Also, the ravages due to prolonged exposure to the open air made identification of unburied bodies impossible.

It is not hard, therefore, to understand why the current statistics for overall losses in Turkey reveal the following:

  • British casualties: 24% identified, 6% unidentified burials and 70% no known graves;
  • Australian casualties: 38% identified, 1% unidentified burials and 61% no known graves;
  • New Zealand casualties: 17% identified, 5% unidentified burials and 78% no known graves; and
  • India/Pakistan casualties: 10% identified, 2% unidentified burials and 88% no known graves.

Turkish burials

Unlike the Commonwealth countries, the Turkish nation did not construct formal cemeteries for their fallen after the war. The whole battlefield area, therefore, is a sacred repository for the Turkish fallen. This adds an estimated figure in the region of 70,000 to the numbers of soldiers with no known graves.

The battlefield area therefore represents one vast burial ground and should be respected as such.

Advice for the visitor

The battlefield lies within the confines of the Turkish Peace Park known as Milli Park. The visitor should note that it is absolutely forbidden by the Turkish authorities to dig for artefacts and remains.

Milli Park contains many small farms that abut the battlefield areas. It should be noted that these farms are not encroaching on the battlefield area. Prior to the war, the surrounds to features such as Hill 60 were typically 'a mixture of scrub, oat fields and wheat fields' and 'today, wheat fields surround the hill, as they did in 1915 (Taylor and Cupper’s A Battlefield Guide p174). Visitors should not trespass on these agricultural fields.

Discovery of remains

Discovery of bone fragments

Bone fragments work up to the surface from time to time. In view of the fact that there are so many casualties on both sides with no known grave, the policy is to put these fragments back into the soil of the battlefield. Should a visitor find a bone fragment, then this is the most advisable course of action.

Discovery of significant remains

It is unlikely that a visitor will be involved in a major find of a full skeleton with identifiable items of uniform or equipment. In such an event, the matter should be reported to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission office in Canakkale. CWGC would then liaise with their Head Office, the Milli Park Turkish Authorities and the relevant Embassy. Should clear identification be possible, then the Commission would accept the remains to be interred in the most appropriate CWGC cemetery and a grave marker, in the form of a pedestal, would be placed.