Remains of the Enemy: German War Dead
The pressures of combat, frigid weather, and a rapidly shifting front line complicated
disposition of the dead on both sides. The difficulties encountered by both combatants
explain the regular discovery of remains up to this day, particularly in the heavily
forested Hurtgen Forest region. Though leaving fallen comrades behind was undoubtedly
wrenching for both German and American soldiers of a primarily Christian background,
official and unofficial methods of grave registration differed considerably.
The Germans usually buried their comrades where they fell, sometimes in a nearby
village. The grave was marked with the soldier's helmet, and a wooden cross stating the
name and date of death. During the heavy fighting in the Bulge, Mathilde Schmetz
reported that both American and German graves in the Northern Shoulder were
sometimes marked only with two sticks crudely fastened into a cross. Some of these grave
designations were already gone by the spring of 1945, blown down or collapsed under the
snow. Though the ID tag of a German soldier was buried with the body, only a helmet
remained to mark the burial place. Some of these bodies were eventually retrieved by the
families and reburied closer to home, but many graves have been lost forever with time.
Marcel Schmetz recalls the accidental death of a German soldier who was "playing around
with a grenade" in Sept 1944. The young German was buried on the neighbor's farm
where he had been billeted, and Marcel vividly remembers passing the cross and helmet
every day on the way to school. Over the course of several months, the cross collapsed
but the helmet remained for "a long time" until it, too, disappeared. He is unsure if the
body was ever exhumed.
The museum in Diekirch contains several German death notices sent to families, along
with photos and letters home. Vague descriptions of the gravesites, e.g. "two kilometers
south of Bech by the large tree", would make locating a burial site very difficult. Both
Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz say the helmets were left undisturbed out of respect for the
deceased, regardless of whether they were German or American. Both suspect artifact
hunters over the last decade have found the helmets and unknowingly removed the only
remaining marker for many graves. Even more disturbing, the Schmetzs report that
graves in their area have been intentionally disrupted in search of valuable military
Luxembourger Emil Hansen says his family found many temporary German graves in
foxholes when they returned to their Weilerbach farm in March 1945. Fred Karen,
thirteen at the time, helped his mother bury a decomposing German body behind their
garden wall the same month: "The weather was warming up and he smelled too bad.
There wasn't anything else to do"
Even today, untouched remains are occasionally found. Fred Karen discovered a German
body in 1997 on Hill 313 outside Echternach. The intact body lay under about a foot of
leaves, below a steep bluff far from the hiking trails which crisscross the former
battlefield. The distinctive hobnailed boots triggered Fred's metal detector; shallow
digging unearthed a boot and human remains. The still-intact ID tags made possible
contact of surviving family members and military reburial by the German consulate.
A presumed human bone and German boot was found by a US military family on Hill 313
in 2010. No other artifacts were found nearby and Luxembourg authorities did not think
there was enough evidence to conduct a further search. The bone was respectfully
reburied by the family in the original location.
Another German skeleton was located in July 2002 behind the Fromburg farm outside
Osweiler Luxembourg. A search was prompted by a veteran from the 12th
Volksgrenadiers who remembered burying a friend in that site. The remains were found
30 cm deep, and included a bayonet, spade, bullets, and straps. The soldier was found with
American phone cable wrapped around his ankles, probably placed to drag him through
the snowy forest to the burial site. Unfortunately no identification was found, so
notification of survivors was not possible. The skeletal remains were claimed by the
German consulate and buried in an "Unbekannt" or "Unknown" grave in a German
military cemetery. This soldier's effects are tastefully displayed in diorama of a gravesite
in the Diekirch Military Museum.
Contrary to US Army practice, the Germans sometimes buried both American and
German casualties together in the same location. A Time/Life photo shows neatly lettered
identical wooden crosses with an American "John D. Ford" and a German "Otto
Krelmes" in adjacent graves. American policy at this time forbid burial of any American
soldier on German soil and led to formation of American cemeteries in adjacent countries.
George Daubenfeld describes finding two "completely carbonized" German bodies still at
the controls of a tank in the summer of 1945. At this time, wartime vehicles and exploded
bunkers remained in the Luxembourg fields where they'd been abandoned the previous
winter. A neighbor had found a nest of kittens in the tank, and suggested 9 year old
George take a look. He remembers looking down into the tank and seeing the kittens,
while casually noting the bodies: "The Germans were like animals to us, they meant
The German/Luxembourg War Graves Treaty in 1952 allowed the recovery and
repatriation of 5300 German war dead in Luxembourg. A visit to one of the German war
cemeteries scattered throughout the Ardennes region is a bit unsettling. Simple black
stone crosses mark the names of the four soldiers in separate adjoining graves. As in the
American cemeteries, graves of unknown soldiers are numerous, with "Ein Unbekannter
Deutscher Soldat" replacing "Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known
But to God". For many years, families in the DDR were not able to visit their soldiers in
Soldatenfriedhofs in the west. Likewise, millions of German soldiers killed on the Eastern
Front in Russia were buried in unknown graves, though recovery efforts have begun with
the opening of the Eastern Bloc. Grave robbing in Russia has become such a problem that
the German government tracks sellers of WWII German dog tags on ebay.
The German War Graves Commission home page is in German, but an English version on
many pages on their site is available.