James Wearn reports on a vast battlefield of both world wars, filled with the bodies of the unrecovered dead.
In a dark, boggy, mosquito-infested forest, the eerie silence is penetrated by a clatter of metal and heavy breathing, then the chatter of animated voices and a sudden exclamation, ‘Look over here!’
This is the remote heart of Courland in north-western Latvia, and these are ‘the diggers’, one of the few groups in Eastern Europe licensed to excavate sites from the two world wars, including human remains. They investigate battlefields, bunkers, and capitulation sites, unearthing long-lost soldiers.
Sadly, the main impediment to their work is neither mosquitoes nor the unexploded ordnance frequently encountered. It is competition with illegal bounty-hunters. Several thousand of these, commonly called ‘black diggers’ or ‘black archaeologists’ now dig in Europe for war relics, exploiting the traces of the past for personal gain. A very modern conflict has ensued. From Latvia in particular, a stream of undocumented war relics now pours into collectors’ markets throughout the world.
An accumulation of artefacts
Latvia was contested by the Germans and the Russians in both world wars. Therefore, artefacts from the two conflicts can be found in close proximity.
German forces brought WWI to Latvian soil in early 1915, having declared war on Russiain August 1914. In September 1915, the German 12th Army advanced through the Courland region on their way to the Latvian capital of Riga. Although held back temporarily by the re-establishment of a stronger Russian frontline, in early September 1917 the Germans reached Riga, and five months later their occupation was complete. Only with the armistice of 11 November 1918 did the German troops pull out and return home.
Latvia was occupied twice during WWII: by the Germans in 1941 (after having been forcibly annexed by Soviet Russia just before the war), and then by the Soviets in 1945. In 1941, during their advance into Russia, the Germans swept across Latvia, Belorussia (Belarus), and Ukraine. They took Riga on 1 July 1941. Later, as the tide turned and Soviet forces pushed westward, the Germans relinquishing Riga (13 October 1944), but soon after found themselves cut off in Courland.
Bounded by the Baltic Sea to the north and west, and trapped by the Red Army to the south and east, several hundred thousand Germans, amounting to 32 divisions of the Wehrmacht and SS, accompanied by approximately 20,000 Latvian nationals, dug in to fight it out in the ‘Courland Pocket’. Evacuation by sea was limited by Hitler’s refusal to withdraw defending units and there by lose the Kriegsmarine-heldport of Liepaja.
Between October 1944 and May 1945, six battles for Courland were fought, each bitterly by both sides. Soviet casualty figures in Courland during WWII have been estimated at around 160,000 (of whom approximately 30,500 were irrecoverable at the time). The Germans lost many thousands, too, though estimates differ considerably, with up to 200,000 entering Soviet captivity.
Perhaps 80,000 soldiers still lie undiscovered in Latvia. Around 5,000 people are estimated to be exploring the battlefield today, and the bodies of fallen men are often discovered. Their fate, and that of their personal effects, depends wholly upon the identity and motives of the person with the shovel.
Probably the most interesting part of Courland, archaeologically, is the south of the region, where the frontline was located from late 1944 until the end of the war, moving little as ground was won and lost.
Besides the remoteness of most of the landscape, exploration (regardless of intent) was delayed by Soviet occupation for almost 50 years following WWII. For example, after the successful removal by Soviet forces of all post-war resistance from Latvian nationals in Courland, the entire population of the Zvarde Parish in Saldus District was evicted, and the area was then used as a Soviet air-bombardment training ground until 1990.
After the Soviet military left Latviain 1994, the door opened and there was an upsurge of interest in this landscape, both domestic and international – an landscape barely trodden by human feet since the end of the Second World War.
Legenda (as the official digging group is known) found fame nationally with a book about the first years of their activities written by one of its earliest members. Viktors Duks’ fascinating work, Diggers: discovering artifacts from two world wars, was followed by an award-winning Latvian documentary film entitled Keep Smiling!, dealing with the ethics of investigating one’s homeland for fallen soldiers.
‘Like professionally trained dogs’ (as Duks puts it), Legenda’s task is undeniably one of sniffing out and unveiling snapshots of wartime, the pixels of which are awaiting discovery and reassembly. Duks’ writing instantly conjures empathy, placing the reader in the heart of the Latvian wilderness. Soldiers have been buried near a farmhouse. How many? From which army? We don’t know. From such strands of information the group must proceed.
Finding the dead
Although Legenda’s members are modest about their own activities, their contribution is by no means trivial. In just over decade, and in close association with the Latvian Army, War Museums, the Latvian Fraternal Cemeteries Commission, and the German and Russian ambassadors (and their respective war-graves commissions), they have recovered thousands of soldiers (several hundred per year) and caused the destruction of innumerable hazardous explosives. Corpses are treated with reverence, regardless of nationality, and are handed over to the appropriate nation for reburial during an annual ceremony.
They have obviously done their homework – one cannot simply ‘go out and dig’ in a land so vast, varied, and potentially dangerous, and where frozen ground and snowfall prevents fieldwork during several months of the year. Whilst the few surviving battle maps and other publications are invaluable, their awareness of sites has been supplemented greatly by local residents, offering information on localities of wartime encampments and memories of where soldiers had been buried informally in the field (often with wooden markers, which have long since decomposed or been removed).
Unearthing immature bones of boy soldiers, whose parents never knew where their beloved son was buried and likely suffered emotional torture as the lack of closure suspended their grieving, is always particularly moving. Whenever a spoon, razor, or mess-tin is unearthed, one inescapable question always springs to mind – did the owner eat his last meal or have his last shave with this? Was it thrown down and lost in the heat of battle, or was it left behind as its owner had ceased to need it in this life?
One could argue that there is so much of the stuff, and so much already in museums, that finding more military objects is pointless. But context is all. The location of an object often provides a wealth of information about the activities which caused it to be there.
According to members of Legenda, ‘what you read in books differs a lot from what you actually see from archaeology’. For example, the group have unearthed identity discs bearing units which have not been recorded before. This alone has implications for the published histories of military formations and strategy on the Eastern Front. Capitulation sites are especially rich in interesting insignia, hurriedly buried by soldiers prior to their surrender.
‘The deeper we dig, the less is clear,’ says Duks. The archaeology of Courland has certainly yielded many puzzles and many discrepancies between information gleaned from archives and the memories of people old enough to have witnessed events.
There is clearly much we still do not know about the grim events in the Courland Pocket and the lives of those who were caught in the bitter fighting there. Equally intriguing are various oddities that have been discovered, demonstrating a need for more than one piece of evidence when attempting to identify the remains of soldiers – bodies of Russians wearing German ammo pouches, for instance, presumably because they were of better quality, or German belts with buckles defaced (eagle/swastika emblems removed and, on occasion, the addition of a chiselled-in hammer and sickle).
Unlicensed digging in Courland is rapidly taking its toll on the region’s history, with artefacts being removed without any record, destroying their context. There are currently more plunderers than patrols. In April 2012, the problem was highlighted when an open letter was sent by a group of archaeologists in Russia to President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, outlining the seriousness of the situation and appealing for measures to be taken against these people.
There are three distinct approaches to the recovery of artefacts from battlefields:
- Looting for personal gain. The most disturbing cases are those where scavengers have encountered human remains and removed all forms of identity (awards, identity discs, insignia) from them and left bones scattered on the surface without any hope of identification when anyone rediscovers them (and liable to quick removal by scavenging animals).
- Means of support. The first wave of scavenging began immediately after the war, as weapons and military clothes were used put to use by local residents. Today, people who live in areas with insufficient employment or welfare support dig up war relics as a source of income (usually unaided by modern technology, such as metal-detectors, due to expense), supplementing more traditional earnings from the land, including mushroom picking. For them, keeping the living alive is the priority.
- Archaeological research and finding the fallen. This aims to recover human remains, make safe unexploded ordnance, and gathering data and artefacts to promote greater understanding of the turbulent history of the region. Everything associated with a body/skeleton is kept with it for reburial or is handed over to the family.
Many of the sites of static wartime military activities like soldiers’ rest camps and bunkers have now been explored – one way or another – but extensive battlescapes, including overgrown trenches, remain largely uninvestigated. To say that it has become a race to discovery is not an exaggeration.