Interesting facts about our work

Interesting facts about our work

The MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Center (JCCC) Memorial Team, also known as the MOD’s “War Detectives”, are tasked with attempting to identify British personnel killed in historic campaigns dating back to the Great War and hold a military ceremony.

Due to the nature of our work, one of the first questions we are often asked is “Do you have a job?” “. As we are a small team based in Gloucester, opportunities to work with us are rare, but all vacancies will be advertised – like all civil service jobs – on Civil Service Jobs. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer volunteer opportunities.

We get a variety of inquiries about all aspects of our work, so we’ve put together the most common and interesting facts.

How we research our recovery cases and how this may lead to identification; when DNA is used and how we find family members.

There are some differences between World War I (WW1) and World War II (WW2) casualties.


Find the remains of fallen British servicemen

When the remains of British servicemen are found on historic battlefields, one of the first things we look for is clues to who they served with, for example shoulder titles or cap badges.

Shoulder titles of a soldier of West Yorks. Copyright Imperial War Museum.

Without this information, we have little chance of making an identification (unless the victim is found with personal items bearing his name or number). Once we know a wounded’s regiment, we can try to determine when they were in the recovery area. Other types of clues that are invaluable are if we find badges of rank, for example sergeant’s stripes.

Referral sources we use

The first step is to review battalion war diaries to find out exactly where a regimental battalion was located on a given date. The entire Western Front was mapped in 500 meter squares so that troop movements could be traced and a recovery location accurately identified; these are known as trench maps (available through various online websites). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) contains records of exhumations from each of the “squares” on the trench map, which can be useful in showing which regiments of wounded have already been found in the same location. We also review regimental histories, diaries, information held by regimental museums and online. Each of the Services has a specialized historical branch which can assist us if necessary. Some of the other useful sources of information we look at are soldier’s effects records, pension cards, Red Cross POW records, medal cards and newspaper records.

Establishment of date of death

When we have done our regimental research, we should have an idea of ​​when a particular regiment was in the salvage location. We’ll also have another look at the artifacts to see if there’s anything that might help us with a date of death. For example, there may be parts from a small box respirator found with a victim. These were only issued for the first time in 1916, so we can exclude a date of death before that date. We are going to watch CWGC exhumation records to see if other recoveries from the same regiment were made, and when. All the information should help us narrow down a date of death to within a few days.

The next step in our process

Once we have a regiment, a time limit for death, and hopefully a rank, we will search for the CWGC database to find out how many casualties of a particular rank/battalion/regiment died during the day(s) in question and have no known grave.

How we use DNA for identification

If we can narrow down the list of potential victims to around 10, we’ll consider taking some DNA to help us out. DNA is only ever used as confirmation of what we suspect. Instead, our process uses all available evidence from the recovery site and military records to establish a victim’s potential identity before using anthropology and finally DNA to add a level of confirmation. additional. Matching the DNA to the standard needed to make a positive identification is rarely enough on its own. Given the passage of time, the condition of many remains found, and changes in family dynamics, it often happens that even those with a very high likelihood of a direct family relationship only have a partial DNA match. . Therefore, starting the identification process by trying to work from the DNA match would be unlikely to succeed and is more likely to raise expectations that could prove upsetting for the families involved.

We outsource our DNA work to a reputable firm of forensic experts. They will take samples from the victim’s remains, prepare male and/or female profiles, before comparing them to a sample taken from an appropriate relative. They also undertake anthropology work for us, giving us an approximate age range and height, which can be used to further narrow down a pool of potential candidates. Our ADN contract is re-let periodically through an open commercial contest.

Suitable DNA donors

Not all family members of a victim are suitable donors for DNA. In short, we need to follow a direct male (Y STR) or female (MtDNA) lineage through the generations. For example, a victim’s son/grandson/great-grandson, etc., would all be suitable donors; as would a sister/niece/great-niece, etc. But if the victim had a daughter, her father’s DNA would end with her and any of his subsequent children/grandchildren, etc. not suitable for comparison.

DNA registration

We never collect DNA from living relatives in anticipation of future findings due to the ethical and legal implications enshrined in UK law.

DNA profiles stored in family history/genealogy websites

In practical terms, processing DNA samples to the level required for positive victim identification is a complicated process and far exceeds the more generic service offered by family history societies.

How we trace a victim’s family

We take the information we have (date and place of birth, names of parents and/or siblings) and build a family tree. We will look at census information (the latest available is the 1939 register) and try to work up to the current generation. We can only use information already in the public domain, for example, voter lists, but it usually gives us enough to get an idea of ​​who a current relationship might be. We are sometimes able to locate them via social media or we appeal to local TV, radio or newspapers, as well as via our own Facebook account: @wardetectives.


The vast majority of those recorded as having no known burial are likely to be among those buried “known to God” in CWGC cemeteries or, unfortunately, were lost in circumstances where no remains will survive. Some are still buried where they fell into shallow pits and it is this category that constitutes the majority of our work, as human remains are still being found, particularly in France and Flanders. The cases we are handling represent only a tiny proportion of the total who do not have a named final resting place. There are more than half a million missing from the Great War. It is thought that around a third of them are buried as “unknown” while the other two thirds are still “missing”.


The majority of our work for WWII victims is made up of RAF personnel where aircraft crash sites are searched, particularly in the Netherlands and Germany. Our research into these cases uses RAF combat reports, operations logs, crew logs and casualty records. If the plane’s identity can be established, it is usually much easier to name its victims, as there would be a maximum number of potential candidates (depending on the type of plane) and the names of the crew lost aircraft are kept on RAF Casualty Records. The DNA and Family Tracing information (listed above) still applies. When it comes to Royal Navy casualties, unfortunately, their victims’ remains are lost at sea rather than recovered.

There are still occasional army casualties found in World War II conflicts. We would use the same research methods as for the victims of the First World War.

Identification of unknown graves

It is sometimes possible to find out who is buried in an “unknown” grave in one of the CWGCCemeteries of and a number of researchers/historians/family members/members of the public do so and submit their evidence for consideration. This must be done by research only – exhumation of a war grave for identification purposes is not permitted. In addition to proving the connection between a potential candidate and the unidentified victim, it is equally important to exclude all other potential candidates from the investigation. All cases should be sent to CWGC in the first place for them to check their records; if they believe a case has merit, it will be forwarded to the historical branch of the Service and then to us for a final decision. Advice on how to submit an identification dossier can be found on the CWGCthe website of.

For clarity, the main aspects of our work can be summarized as follows:

  1. The power to establish the identity of the remains of British service personnel from the First World War and then coordinate a burial with full military honours, and

  2. Make the decision as to whether a previously “unknown” grave can be accepted as the final resting place of a named person and oversee the rededication service performed at the grave in question.


Since the 1980s, the families of military personnel who died overseas have been able to have the bodies of their loved ones repatriated to the UK for burial and/or cremation. Previously, all war dead were buried in the country of their death and no repatriation was allowed. These rules are still in effect for those who died in either world war. They are buried with their compatriots; “served together, died together, buried together”.