Graves Registration Card Registers, 1917-22
By Constance Potter
"A careful record was kept of the location of each grave."-- General John J. Pershing
During the Civil War, the War Department first developed procedures to identify and bury the dead, both Confederate and Union. Before that men were buried by their comrades where they died, and the War Department kept few records of the burials. In the Spanish-American War in 1898, the first foreign war following the Civil War, the War Department expanded these procedures to include the return of the bodies of the men who died overseas to be buried in either a U.S. or private cemetery.
The need to identify, and rebury, the bodies increased with U.S. entry into WWI on April 6, 1917. On August 7, War Department Order 104 authorized the organization of a Graves Registration Service (GRS). The first GRS units reached France in October.
The individual combat units, not the GRS, had the responsibility of burying the dead as soon as possible, sometimes in nearby shell holes. Most of the men killed in battle were buried within 24 hours although it sometimes could take a week or longer. Battlefield conditions made immediate and proper burial difficult after troops advanced, but the burial parties took great care to mark the graves properly.
The GRS eventually moved the bodies to an America cemetery in Europe or shipped them back to the United States. Some men were buried in as many as three different places. The GRS created a file for each man who died overseas even if his remains were returned later to the United States.
The Quartermaster created a card register of burials of deceased American soldiers, 1917-22, that summarized the information from these files. Both the files and the register cards are part of the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General (Records Group 92) in Entry 1945 held by the National Archives in College Park, MD. The cards, which are two-sided, are both for men whose bodies were shipped home and those buried overseas. The burial records comprise Army, Navy, and Marine Corps overseas deaths.
Information Found on the Front of the Card
The front of the card gives the following information:
The card often lists a photograph number in the space marked photograph. It appears that these photographs were not preserved.
The following samples show the information that is available on the cards. The card for Frank J. Holcomb is for a body that was returned to the United States and that for Lewis A. Holley, a body that remained in France.
Body Returned to the United States
Frank J. Holcomb was buried three times before his body was returned. His body was shipped from Antwerp on June 19, 1921, arrived at Hoboken on July 2, and arrived in Centerville, SD, on August 6. The card gives the date as August 6, 1920, but this must be a typo.
Body Buried Overseas
Lewis A. Holley, from Hedgesville, West Virginia, died of “broncho” pneumonia, which was probably influenza, on October 4, 1918. Above his first name, the card indicates he was a “Negro.” In the space for emergency address it notes that his mother is dead and his wife, Katherine B. Holley, is the contact. By her name is the notation “Sailed August 16, 1930, American Merchant.” This means that Katherine Holley, as the widow of a soldier buried overseas, was eligible to visit Holley’s grave in France at the expense of the Federal government. Called the Gold Star Mother’s Pilgrimage, this program allowed the mothers and widows of soldiers buried overseas to visit the grave. More information about the Gold Star Mothers will follow.
The ABMC website links to the page for Lewis Holley. The website also links to a description of the cemetery that includes a brochure that describes the history of each cemetery.
If the soldier were buried in Arlington National Cemetery, both the top and bottom portions of side two of the card register were completed because the body both had to be returned to the United States, and buried in a National Cemetery.
Ordering Copies of the Records
To request a search of the records either write to Textual Reference Archives II Branch (RDT2), National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001 or send an email to Archives2reference@nara.gov. Note that you would like a copy of the “card register of burial of deceased soldiers, 1917-1922,” and include the name of the soldier, his branch of service, and the approximate date of death.
Next article: Casualty Lists
Constance Potter is a retired reference archivist. She worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.