World War I records re-discovered

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MARCO WERMAN: When wars end, they leave many unanswered questions. What really happened to those who died? And where were they buried? World War I was among the deadliest conflicts in history. So it's no surprise that it left countless deaths shrouded in mystery. But as The World's Matthew Bell reports, a vast trove of records from the �War to end all Wars� has just been discovered. And it's of great interest to the relatives of those who perished almost a century ago.

EVA GILBERT: We lost about 400 that day, killed and wounded. A sad day for us.

MATTHEW BELL: That's Eva Gilbert in southeast England, reading from her uncle's war diary. Corporal Burt Roots was believed killed in action in France on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Gilbert says her father always wanted to know what happened to his brother. But the soldier's body was never found. She says the possibility that her family could learn more about what happened to her uncle is welcome news.

GILBERT: We'd all be delighted, because not knowing for all these years and then finding out where he died and what day, it would be absolutely marvelous, really.

BELL: The man helping to offer Gilbert and millions of others like her the chance to find out what really happened to their relatives lost during the First World War is British historian Peter Barton. He was hired by an Australian family to do some research. And that led Barton to the basement of the Red Cross museum in Geneva.

BARTON: I'd knew that there was something about the dead in here because my colleagues here at the Red Cross had sent me a list. I thought I'd come and have a look for myself.

BELL: That's when he discovered millions of detailed records on war deaths left virtually untouched for decades. Barton gave the BBC a tour of facility and described the kind of details that appear on neatly typed pages and index cards.

BARTON: This gives you details of men who were found on the battlefield. This is page 25 of a total list which is a death list. You see page 25 there, and it lists some men who were killed in 1918 German offensive. And you can see they all fell in the same place or very nearly the same area. It lists their name, their number, their rank, their unit, where they were found � exactly where they were found. You could actually pace it out. And it also tells you where they are, where they were buried � �on the left of the road from Bullecor towards Crassil, about 500 meters from the exit to Bullecor will be a single grave.� These men are all in a mass grave near Aros.

BELL: As a historian of the First World War, Barton says finding this archive was like stumbling onto the tomb of Egypt's King Tut and China's Terra Cotta warriors simultaneously.

BARTON: It's an extraordinary collection. It's massive. We're talking about over 20 million individual entries, individual names. And of course, you've got the Second World War then, and the whole place is just one huge treasure trove. And it's just been � not deliberately, but it's just been hidden for 90 years. I can't believe it. I still cannot believe it. I keep asking the staff, �Are you sure nobody's ever researched these before?� And they said �Nobody has ever asked for them before.�

BELL: Barton says what happens next � and this will be a big task � is that the records will start to be digitized so they can be more easily accessed by other historians and by relatives of those loved ones lost so long ago. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell.

WERMAN: You can take a peek inside the Red Cross archive via our website. That's theworld.org. While you're there, read veterans' stories from the front lines of World War I.