Archaeologists unearthed forgotten WWI war graves
A team of archaeologists from Jagiellonian University of the city discovered the remains of two cemeteries of the World War One in collaboration with local volunteers and the Komańcza community and also solved the mystery of the obelisk described in the Good Soldier Svejk around Šupkov in the Podkarpacie area.
With the graves of soldiers killed in the winter battles for Župkowska Pass in 1915, it is thought that two years later, the cemeteries were built before disappearing and swallowed by nature.
“At the end of the Second World War and after many conflicts in this area between the Poles and Ukrainians, Dr. Marcin Czarnowicz, chief archaeologist on the Jagiellonian team, said. “A huge number of people have been expelled from their homes and this has degraded the area. Villages simply disappeared and cemeteries disappeared.
In Župków and Zubeńsko, the cemeteries produced fragments of equipment, hundreds of cartridge cases and personal items, such as a wallet, for example.
“That’s been sent to the conservator,” says Czarnowicz. “We found it with a piece of paper sticking out of it so we’re hopeful that it might be a personal document that will reveal who was buried here.” Other finds, adds Czarnowicz, have helped forge a better understanding of the soldiers daily lives and habits, not to mention their beliefs.
“The Russian soldiers, for instance, often carried pocket knives and religious crosses,” says Czarnowicz, “something that we’ve found to be in complete contrast to the Austro-Hungarian troops.”
Likewise, the discovery of the two cemeteries has also lent researchers a deeper insight into the way the dead were buried. In this case, the graveyard at Łupków consisted of two individual sectors divided between Russian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. In Zubensk, however, the cemetery took the form of four semi-circles, three in which bodies from both sides were buried.
Of equal importance has been the discovery made nearby from the obelisk featured in Jaroslav Hasek’s best-selling book The Good Soldier Svejk.
“The monument was in such bad shape that we were afraid to excavate around it. It has a rectangular space outlined with concrete construction in front of it. A similar thing built in the same manner was located about 1.5m to the west.
“This place was excavated by my team,” says Czarnowicz, “inside an empty coffin was found most probably belonging to a Red Army Officer who died in November 1944. Putting all the puzzles together we deducted that obelisk itself was erected in 1916 to commemorate the fighting between Austro-Hungarians and Tsarist units but was later used to bury Red Army officers.”
These latest findings are part of a wider ongoing project that was first initiated in 2015 and represents the tip of the iceberg. “It’s difficult to say how many bodies remain to be found, but for certain there’s thousands out there,” says Czarnowicz. The highly fluid nature of the frontline and the ferocity of the fighting means that yet more cemeteries are guaranteed to be found.
“Both armies sustained high losses here but with so many casualty lists lost in battle and very thinned out archives it’s hard to put an accurate figure on them,” continues Czarnowicz. “It’s quite possible that there might be hundreds of such cemeteries so we will never find them all, but with the help of the local community we can certainly find many more.”
In this regard, Czarnowicz is quick to praise the enthusiasm of the locals as well as the warmth with which they have received his team.
“Originally we were a little hesitant that the local reaction to us wouldn’t be so positive, primarily because pupils tend to be taught that this was a war between Russia , Austria and Germany,” he says. “Now, however, more people are coming to realize that Poles also fought on this front as well and that’s made people more receptive. Actually, in the area we’re working we’ve learned that one of the units was 95% Polish.
Due to resume their work in the area later in the month, other developments also await, not least the launch of a smartphone app that will allow visitors to follow cemetery trails as well as the line of the front.