Solving a Very Small World War One Mystery

How utilizing newly-released and aggregated primary source information led to the discovery of a 100-year-old temporary cemetery.

Last night, whilst performing one of my many Google Image searches of World War One isolated graves (I know, right?) I came across a collection of photographs on a website called “Portraits of War” which included just what I was looking for – a collection of photographs attributed to the 90th Division during World War One. One of these photos showed helmets across a long line of disturbed earth which could only mean one thing – a temporary battlefield cemetery.

From Portraits of War

The caption provided for the photograph indicated this was the burial site of “27 Officers and Men of Co. A – Captain Debario, 1st Lt. Cole, 1st Sgt. Lindsey”

The Task

What I wanted to do was find out where exactly this battlefield burial took place.

On the surface, this task seems a bit overwhelming – there’s no location information in the caption, the landscape itself is unremarkable, and all I have to go on is a few names. Fortunately, the recent release and aggregation of several primary source collections made this task fairly easy once one major stumbling block was cleared.

The Sources

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One (November 11, 2018), the United States’ National Archives released a font of information collected immediately after the war, including information regarding the burials of fallen American servicemen.

The American Expeditionary Force (the name of the collected American armed forces sent overseas to aid the Allied war effort, was meticulous about recording the final resting places of every soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine that died during the conflict through combat, sickness, or any other cause. All this information was complied into a handy index card for each deceased serviceman, some 76,000 in all. It contained the person’s name, the unit they served in, a cause of death, the burial location, and next of kin information.

The Hiccup

With that knowledge in hand, and a fairly uncommon last name (Debario), I figured that finding this temporary cemetery would be simply a matter of trawling through the cards (they aren’t searchable – yet – more on that another time), finding a Captain Debario who served in a “Company A” and who was killed in action, and extrapolating the burial location (more on that another time).

My youthful optimism came to a crashing halt when, trawling through the card index, not a single Debario could be found.

For a few minutes, I lay in my bed staring at my laptop in disbelief. Were the records incomplete? They are for some collections. Was this a fool’s errand to start with?

Fortunately, my over-tired brain quickly went into Occam’s Razor mode – since I have no reason to believe the burial card index is incomplete, it must be a misspelling of the name by whoever wrote the caption to the photograph.

The Brief Detour

So, we have a Captain whose name was something close to Debario who served in Company A of a regiment in the 90th Division who was killed in action.

After a quick Google search, I came across the 90th Division Association’s website and found a link to the publication “History of the 90th Infantry Division in World War I.” In the table of contents, I found “Annex No. 4 – Casualty List.” Surely, our man will be in here somewhere. I just hope it doesn’t take forever to find him!

Luckily for me, the casualty list was sorted by rank, with the Captains being right at the top. Even more luckily, only 8 Captains were killed or died of wounds throughout the whole conflict. Our man was among them:

Captain Charles E. DeLario, Co. A, 360th Infantry, killed in action on November 2, 1918.

Name close to Debario? Check. Company A? Check. Killed in Action? Check.

This is undoubtedly our man from the caption.

Back on Track

With our mysterious captain’s name revealed, I returned to the burial card index and started looking for a DeLario. The cards are in 106 file units in alphabetical order. DeLario would be in the unit “Deasy – Deviro.”

Remember when I said earlier the file units aren’t searchable? That turns into a big pain in the neck when there are 1,654 individual cards in the unit. You can, of course, jump to card #500, for example, and check the name and its position in the alphabet to see if you jumped too far forward or need to keep skipping ahead, but when you get close to the name, it can be a bit tedious, especially when there are dozens and dozens of people with names you didn’t realize were so common.

Eventually, card #603 revealed the following information:

Captain DeLario’s Burial Index Card from the National Archives

Here’s our man!

Deciphering The Card

The information most important to us to find the location of the photograph is in the “Place of Burial-Confirmed” field. The “Disinterred and Reburied” information tells us where his final resting place is today. According to the card, Captain DeLario was originally buried in:

Grave No. 27, Amer. B/A Cty., Villers devant Dun, Meuse, Cemetery #1609

“Grave No. 27” ties in neatly with the original caption, which states there were 27 graves in that cemetery. This lends further weight to the identification of Debario as DeLario, but doesn’t get us much closer to figuring out where he was buried.

“Amer. B/A Cty.” is shorthand for “American Battle Area Cemetery,” which denotes a temporary but organized burial. From the photograph, we can see that this is the case. (As an aside, a soldier buried in a shell crater would most likely have his grave noted as “Isolated” on his burial card.)

“Villers devant Dun, Meuse” is the closest town or city to where the burial took place, Villers-devant-Dun, which still exists today. It may seem obvious that the town still exists, but several towns in the American area of operations were destroyed during the course of the war and then never rebuilt, the French government declaring that these towns had “died for France.” Many Americans were initially buried near towns that today are nothing more than ruins.

“Cemetery #1609” refers to the cemetery in the photograph’s location on a list called the “Graves Registration Service Registration Branch Code List of Cemeteries.” This document is kept in the National Archives and was one I requested be scanned by a research service last summer, before the Card Index was made publicly available. I had a hunch the “Code List of Cemeteries” would have a wealth of information, and I was right.

Cemetery #1609

The Code List of Cemeteries contains the geographic location of approximately 1,700 temporary and permanent cemeteries in France, Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland, Belgium, and other countries. The scans of this typewritten list were fairly easy to run through OCR (Optical character recognition) software once I received them, which made the whole list searchable, which saves a lot of time.

Making a quick in-document search for Cemetery #1609 leads to the following information:

Cemetery #1609’s location from the Code List of Cemeteries

1609 – VILLERS-DEVANT-DUN – American B/A Cemetery 35NE ; E309.4; N292.4

Quick and Dirty Coordinates

The first three entries are fairly easy to sort out with the info we already have, but what on earth are those numbers? They kind of look like coordinates on a map?

They are indeed, astute reader!

If you, like me when I first entered this world, look at those coordinates and create a bald spot through scratching your head trying to make heads or tails of those numbers, take heart, because you really don’t need to know how they work anymore.

Through the Facebook group, I connected with a gentleman named Weldon Hoppe. I sent Mr. Hoppe the OCR version of the Code List of Cemeteries, and once we deciphered the archaic coordinate system used in the list (which I will detail in another post), he was able to create an ARCGis interactive map that plots each cemetery in its approximate location in the modern world. The map is constantly updated with new information, including period photographs and burial plat maps, two items I will get to shortly.

Seeing as we know the cemetery should be in the area of Villers-devant-Dun, you can simply type that name into the search bar on the ARCGis map and get taken to the general area of Cemetery #1609. What do you see when you get there?

Area around Villers-devant-Dun from Weldon Hoppe’s ‘AEF Resources Map’ on ARCGis

There’s #1609, plainly labeled with the headstone icon just north of the town! But what are the camera and the green book icons right next to it?

The Final Pieces

As I said earlier, Mr. Hoppe’s map project isn’t just a one-to-one translation of the Code list of Cemeteries into the modern world. The AEF used that strange coordinate system in all of its day-to-day operations, which allows more documents to be included on the map.

The camera icons correspond to photographs included in the “Griffin Group,” a collection of some 2,000 photographs taken by professional Army Signal Corps photographers immediately after the war. You can learn more about the collection and how to access it on the website, courtesy of Mr. Randy Gaulke, the man who brought the collection out of the darkness.

On the AEF Resources map, clicking on the camera icons brings up some info on each picture, including those strange coordinates, which were often included in the captions of the photos. There’s also a thumbnail that shows the photograph itself. Imagine my surprise when I clicked on photo AM96 and saw this staring back at me:

Griffin Group Photo AM96 – American Graves 0.5 KM North of Villers-devant-Dun – 309.5 – 292.5 – 2-1-19

The same cemetery we’ve been studying this whole time, but from a slightly different angle! Additionally, the coordinates from the photograph caption and the Code List of Cemeteries are almost identical, sealing this as Cemetery #1609 and the first resting place of Captain De Lario and 26 others.

One final set of primary source documents puts a nice neat bow on this entire exercise. Similar to the Griffin Group, professional Army surveyors went across all the American battlefields of France immediately after the war and produced stunningly detailed sketches of as many isolated graves and Battle Area Cemeteries as they could, including names of buried soldiers wherever possible. These sketches were compiled into at least four Plat Books (a process that I’m still not entirely familiar with) that were among the items released on November 11, 2018 by the National Archives.

Mr. Hoppe took the time and painstaking effort to locate all 1,329 of these vitally important plat maps into his ARCGis project map, and sorted them by the Plat Book in which they appear. This saves us non-surveyors countless hours of frustration trying to figure out which map goes to which battle area.

Looking at the ARCGis map of Villers-devant-Dun, we can see that one of these plats, “B-143,” is tantalizingly close to Cemetery #1609. Again, clicking the entry brings up the option of viewing the plat map in full. When we do, we see this:

GRS Plat B-143 from the National Archives Collection “Initial Burial Plats for World War I American Soldiers, 1920 – 1920”

Graves 1-27? Check. Captain De Lario? Check (though here he’s in Grave 1 and on his Burial Index Card he’s in Grave 27, so he was either in the first or last grave, depending on which way you started counting!). We even find the “1st Lt. Cole, 1st Sgt. Lindsey” from the original caption buried here, names I didn’t dare try to research because of how common they are.

I’m sure more astute surveyors and GIS professionals can make more of the survey maps than I can, but it seems like it would be very easy to overlay the plat map exactly on top of the modern topography, using that sharp bend in the northbound road as a reference. Then, we would know the exact location of Cemetery #1609. Perhaps a project for another day?

Astute observers will also note that the location of the cemetery on the map, the location of the cemetery in the Griffin Group photograph, and the location of the cemetery from the Code List of Cemeteries don’t all line up perfectly on the ARCGis map. Like I have said throughout, due to the archaic nature of the coordinate system (or perhaps our incomplete understanding of the system itself), you should consider the ARCGis map as a ballpark tool (albeit a fantastic one) that will get you very close to where you want to go. Perhaps one day we can figure out a magic bullet that will give us an exact latitude-longitude reading for any of these coordinates, but that will have to wait.

Summing Up

Using all the resources recently released to the public by the U.S. National Archives and handily compiled by Mr. Hoppe, Mr. Gaulke, and others, we can say without a shadow of a doubt that the original Portrait of War photograph depicts the burial of Captain Charles De Lario, Company A, 360th Infantry Regiment, and 26 other American soldiers who were buried at Cemetery #1609, some 324 feet west of the road north of Villers-devant-Dun some time after November 2, 1918.

Now, why do all this? Why go through all the trouble of locating where one simple grave photograph was taken 100 years ago? None of those soldiers are buried there anymore, it doesn’t particularly matter.

However, I was curious, and I wanted to see if all the newly released information could help locate a small temporary cemetery in the desolate wasteland of the Western Front. Through some hard work and some luck, I think I’ve shown that it can be done.

There are countless other photos like this, that can now be seen in their full historical context. I feel this sort of pseudo-archaeology can be a useful tool to fleshing out the full extent of the American involvement of World War One, and can open more doors to more avenues of research.

I hope that if you come across any similar photographs in your research, you can try the methods I used above and achieve similar results!