What do you do when hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been left dead and scattered across your country?

They’re not neatly buried in sites of designated archaeological importance or in official graveyards.  They’ve been killed in brutal frontline warfare, their remains and effects left rotting for seventy years under hedgerows and ploughed fields.

It’s hard for us to imagine in Britain.  It just isn’t a problem we face in genteel Kent or Hertfordshire.  But, in parts of Poland, the Baltics, Russia and Ukraine, site of the endgame of World War II, this is grim reality.  Four million are still officially registered ‘missing in action’ across the Eastern Front.  Occasionally soldiers’ effects are unearthed and taken by black diggers (treasure hunters who loot the battlefields illegally for relics they can sell and toss aside items of no value), making it harder year-on-year to identify the dead bodies or understand their last moments.

It’s been left to unpaid volunteers, working in their own time and in co-operation with war graves charities, to shoulder the hard work of recovering the remains and burying the fallen with honour.  

At ClearStory we wanted to bring this important but unsung recovery work to light and we gained access to the work of two authorised groups of volunteers who have become expert in their field: ‘Legenda’ in Latvia and ‘Pomost’ in Poland.  

We took a team of four English speaking presenters who would work alongside Legenda and Pomost, and under their supervision, communicating their passion for the history and bringing it to life in a new way as they discovered more about it themselves. 

It isn’t possible to turn up in Latvia or Poland and just start digging.  Our expeditions were meticulously planned with all the correct permits and the landowner’s permission in accordance with local laws. Careful research, in addition, took us to surviving witnesses from the end of the war, local historians and primary evidence such as a Soviet intelligence report, which provided invaluable detail about a battlefield near Saldus in Northern Latvia. 

The next stage was a very carefully planned recce. Why?  Because the battlefields we featured were more or less static for months on end, which meant the ground was likely to be littered with 70-year-old ordnance and we needed to be aware of all the potential dangers.

The process of excavating human remains that have been left for seventy years is meticulous.  Slowly and methodically, the effects found near the skeleton are brought out, recorded and bagged.  The team searches for any form of identification;  when we found a Wehrmacht dog tag or a Red Army guards division badge this took us that much closer to the individual and could be sent on the relevant authorities.  As the skeleton is slowly uncovered, the bones are brought up in an atmosphere almost of reverence.  These were visceral moments, hugely emotional for everyone.

 Of course, we couldn’t record all the long hours of the excavation process but we tried to capture the key discoveries.

It proved an extraordinary production.  In Latvia, three soldiers were recovered and now have finally been properly laid to rest in military cemeteries.  A recovered dog tag of a Wehrmacht soldier was supplied to the German authorities to inform next of kin, if they can be tracked down.  In Poland, 36 soldiers and civilians were found and they too have now been buried with honour. 

Furthermore, we recovered hundreds of historic items from the battlefields, which have now been recorded and secured.  Our team even found five artifacts, which were deemed of historical importance by the Latvian War Museum and acquired for public display. 

While we’re proud of the work Battlefield Recovery undertook in Eastern Europe, we’re also very aware that our efforts are just a drop in the ocean.  Thousands and thousands of bodies are still out there, left behind and lost.  We’ve stayed in close touch with Pomost and Legenda and are discussing how we might make a sequel.

Next TX: 19.05 Saturday 9th January 2016, Channel 5