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Service casualty branches
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Service Casualty Branches

Introduction I Repatriation I The Royal Navy I Contemporary British Government Policy on Wrecks I San Carlos I Zwanenburg


Each of the three Services has a casualty branch. In addition to their obvious role in the care of the casualty, they are also responsible for the recovery of the war dead of their particular Service and all matters relating to this issue. Any of the Service Casualty Branches (SCB's) may receive notification at any time, that remains or a corpse has been discovered in any country where British forces were in action or imprisoned during either of the two World Wars, or indeed any other conflict. The local Service Attachés have responsibilities in this area and are often the first point of contact. They are fully briefed before commencing an overseas posting and possess instructions on the procedures to be followed in the event that the remains of British military personnel are discovered. Additionally, Army Casualty Branch is responsible for the maintenance of all British Armed Forces non-World War graves outside the UK. The tasks of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission are defined by their Royal Charter and they are only responsible for commemorating the fallen of the two World Wars. The Commission is therefore under no obligation to agree to requests from the MOD to maintain non-World War graves. The dead of any other war in which the British fought are the responsibility of MOD. Neither the Commission nor the three SCB's actively seek graves. Remains of the war dead are usually discovered in connection with road works, the excavation of foundations for buildings, metal detecting and battlefield scavenging by trophy hunters, the ploughing of fields etc. Any civil engineering work on the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium will produce remains. Ordinarily the finder of human remains would report this to the police, who would contact the local coroner. Once the coroner is satisfied that the remains are those of a British or Commonwealth Serviceman from the World Wars, the British Embassy or High Commission would be contacted. The Defence Attaché would then contact the relevant SCB. If necessary, they would then notify the CWGC.

MOD would then task their forensic osteologist to examine remains for the purpose of identification. Clues are sought from personal effects, identity discs and badges of rank. The osteologist's report is passed to the SCB who will compare the report against the personal details held relating to height, weight, boot size, age, identifying marks, hair colour, etc. They will also attempt to identify the body from contemporary accounts, battalion war diaries, unit histories etc. This process will often involve the relevant Service Historical Branch, or regimental association. The removal of effects by battlefield scavengers can have a negative impact upon the chances of positive identification. Where this is possible, the SCB will attempt to trace the family. They will begin by writing to the home address originally given on the personal record of the casualty. Tracing next of kin can take up to a year and will involve searches in Birth, Marriage and Death records at the Family Records Centre in London and also research in parish registers. Advertisements may also be placed in newspapers. Regardless of what conclusive evidence is found, on or with remains, the use of a forensic osteologist is vitally important to ensure that there has been no mistake in identification. The family will be offered a full military funeral with an appropriate headstone. Two members of the family are invited to attend at public expense. Where no identification is possible, the corpse is interred in a grave with a full military funeral. The headstone will read "KNOWN UNTO GOD ". This is paid for by the State.

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