History of the Graves Registration

By the end of World War I some 77,000 American soldiers had been buried in about 2,400 places in England, France, Belgium, Italy, Russia and Germany. Because it was not possible to maintain such a large number of cemeteries, 8 permanent cemeteries were established. More than 50,000 bodies of soldiers, sailors and marines were returned to the United States, but 30,902 remained in Europe.

The Commanding General, Services of Supply, at Tours, France decided in June 1919 that the wartime work of the Graves Registration Service had been completed and that the organization should be reorganized on a peace-time basis. Consequently, a graves registration service was set up as a division of the Office of the Quartermaster General and was responsible for all matters pertaining to the return of the dead and the maintenance of military cemeteries abroad. The American Graves Registration Service (AGRS), Quartermaster Corps, Europe, with offices in Paris, was responsible for supervising the activities in Europe. A year later, the Secretary of War directed that the National Commission of Fine Arts join with the American Graves Registration Service in Europe in making plans for the beautification aind maintenance of permanent cemeteries.

The Secretary of War recommended to the Congress on 18 February 1922 that legislation be passed establishing a battle monuments commision, to be charged with erecting suitable memorials to mark and commemorate the services of the American forces in France, Belgium and Italy. These memorials and markers would comprise approximately 80 bronze relief maps, 50 bronze outline maps, 10 bronze tablets, and 12 monuments. The Secretary emphasized that all markers and monuments must first be approved by the National Commision of Fine Arts and that the maintenance of the memorials would be charged to the Office of the Quartermaster General. Congress having passed the bill on 4 March 1923, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) was established under the chairmanship of General John J. Pershing. At that time the commission was granted the authority to erect headstones, markers, and monuments within American military cemeteries in coorporation with the American Graves Registration Servcie, Europe. A controversy that arose at once between the two organizations regarding the maintenance and beautification of cemeteries lasted until 26 February 1934, when the American Battle Monuments Commission was given jurisdiction over the permanent cemeteries.

In the meantime, on 1 February 1924, the War Department provided that the Graves Registration Service, which had been abolished in 1920, would be reorganized in time of war. Consequently, on 18 February 1942, a month after the first United States troops of World War II reached Europe, the Graves Registration Service was reconstituted by the War Department. It was set under the Memorial Division, OQMG. The commanding general of each theater of operations was authorized to organise a graves registration service  to function as a part of the office of the theater quartermaster. The name was changed more than a year later to the American Graves Registration Service. Although functions remained the same, AGRS had nothing whatsoever to do with activities in the United States but was created purely to care for deceased military personnel overseas. As chief of AGRS, the Quartermaster General was charged with formulating policies for the operation of graves registration services overseas. He was also given the authority to correspond directly with theater quartermasters on all matters pertaining to graves registration activities.

This article could not have been written without the help of a 1948 copy of the Quartermaster Supply in the European Theater of Operations in World War II series, Volume VII – Graves Registration (by The Quartermaster School, Camp Lee, Virginia)