Sunday, October 26, 2014

We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

599 years ago today, the English Army under Henry V inflicted one of the greatest defeats against the French in  history.  A starving, rag-tag group of Englishmen who had been on the run for over two week, clashed with the French near the little village of Agincourt.  The over confident French were rested well fed and three times their number.  At the end of the fighting the flower of French nobility lay dead in a muddy wheat field.  8,500 Frenchmen lay dead, more than 2,000 more than were in the entire English Army.  

A short excerpt from Chapter 24 of my young reader's novel, "The Archer's Son" in honor of the victory at Agincourt.
"Keep your heads, lads, and nock a bodkin," William called out. "There is Lord Erpingham. Now we will provoke the French into moving." The old knight strode quickly out in the field in front of the line where all could see him. He tossed a baton high in the air to draw the attention of all the archers.
"Now strike!" The old knight bellowed at the top of his lungs.
In unison, five thousand archers muscled bow cords to their ears and launched arrows high in the air toward the French lines. It was a long shot, so the high-arching arrows took several seconds to ascend before they started their deadly fall to earth. Hedyn could see a faint shadow that drifted across the wheat field created by the mass of five thousand feathered missiles. Like a great flock of starlings, he thought. 
Before the first arrows began to thud into men and horses and to clang against armor, the archers were sending more arrows on their way, each man shooting at his own pace. Within a minute, 60,000 arrows were in the air or scattered across the battlefield. Some in dirt, some in men.
The arrow storm had its intended effect. Trumpets sounded, drums thumped, and the French line finally came to life. 
"We are in for it now, lads," William said to no one in particular. 
Mounted knights appeared on each side of the French formation, as the main line of armored men on foot began to move forward. The heavy armor and thick mud made them seem slow and clumsy. 
"Put your arrows on the cavalry, lads. They will try to break our archers on the flanks," the ventenar instructed. "Help our mates on the flanks. Broadheads into horse flesh. If a horse goes down, the knight will go too." Hedyn hated to see the horses killed, but he knew that the highly trained animals were as much a weapon as the lances and swords that each of the knights pointed at his comrades.
From where he stood near the center of the line, Hedyn watched in awe as the French cavalry thundered toward the English flanks on either side of him. The air behind each of the big coursers filled with clods as pounding hoofs splattered the black mud. 
The archers did not falter behind their wooden stakes but poured the bodkins and broadhead arrows into the mass of horses and men. Some began to fall as arrows found chinks in armor or were embedded in screaming horses. Some slowed and galloped back as it became too perilous near the archers and their stakes. A few stalwarts made it to the line of bowmen and discovered that the horses slowed or stopped, refusing to gallop into the protective barricade of stakes. These men were pulled from their mounts and killed by swarms of angry archers. 
One man, a great nobleman in the finest armor, tumbled from his horse headlong as the animal impaled itself on a stake. Even from where Hedyn stood, the splash of red blood stood out on the bleak, muddy field. The man never had a chance to rise from his fall, killed where he lay.
"I knew these stakes were a good scheme the minute King Henry had us cut 'em back in Corbie!" Denzel said, almost as confidently as if he had devised the idea himself. The men rolled their eyes and laughed at him. He smiled sheepishly.
Panicked war-horses, some rider-less, crashed back through the oncoming French line, sending men-at-arms tumbling and scattering to make way. The line slowed, but regrouped and slogged on through the mud.
The French line began to change. It became bunched and irregular. The French knights instinctively crowded to the center to avoid the deadly arrows streaming from the English flanks. The archers stood behind their stakes and shot as fast as arrows could be nocked. The visibility of King Henry's banners at the center of the line reinforced this movement toward the center. The French knights were not disciplined enough to remain where the battle plan required. The line slowly transformed into a blunt wedge, which only presented more targets to the busy archers. 
"Shoot, shoot! Pour it on, lads! Pour it on!" William screamed in a voice that Hedyn had never heard before. It seemed a mixture of terror, excitement, and merriment, almost like the voice of a boy involved in some risky prank. The arrows at the men's feet were long gone, and now each man shot the arrows in the extra bundles that Hedyn delivered before the fight. One hundred and twenty thousand arrows were gone, and still the French came."

An English Archer as he might have looked just prior
to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
William Shakespeare immortalized the great victory at Agincourt in his play, "Henry V."   Shakespeare's version of King Henry's speech before the battle has become one of his most famous scenes.  In my opinion, the version delivered by Kenneth Branagh in a movie by the same name in 1989, is the most moving.  You can see the speech here on Youtube:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Recreating Daniel King's Little Howitzer

During the fall of 2012, I began a project to reproduce a King's Howitzer, a small cannon used in the late 18th century.  I had just sold my full scale 3 pounder gun and limber which I had built in 1999.  That gun and limber were heavy, about 1500 lbs, and took a big crew to serve is safely. 

"Miss Rachel" as we called her was gone, but I wanted something smaller, and authentic, that I could use for upcoming War of 1812 Bicentennial events.  A King's Howitzer fit that bill.

In 1790, General "Mad" Anthony Wayne was looking for a small, highly portable field piece that he could use against the Native Americans on the frontier.  He provided some very basic specifications including caliber (2.85 inches) and overall weight and sent them off to Daniel King of Philadelphia.  The gun was to be a howitzer (meaning there was to be a powder chamber in the breech smaller in diameter than the bore.) It was to be conveyed in pack saddles, not towed, and was to have a total weight of no more than 250 pounds.  King was able to provide such a gun and General Wayne was pleased with results.  However, it was soon discovered the little cannon could not take its own recoil and damaged itself upon firing. The solution was to make the bronze barrel beefier in the breech and trunnions, increasing its weight from 38 to 60 pounds.

The little guns were designed to fire exploding shells and grapeshot with a four ounce powder charge. 

A battery of the King's Howitzers opened the Battle of Falling Timbers and continued to serve at various frontier outposts through the War of 1812.  Most had been retired from service at the end of that conflict.  For a complete history of the King's Howitzer, go to this link:

Although several of the bronze barrels have survived, the same cannot be said for the carriages.  Some hints are provided in correspondence of the time, but much speculation must be used in reproducing the carriages.  Most scholars believe they were scaled down versions of the British 5.5 howitzer, and that is where I started in designing my King's Howitzer carriage.

My bronze barrel, or "tube" as they are termed in artillery circles, was cast by Bob Gilmor in Ohio. It has true 2.85 inch bore with a 1.3 inch chamber.  I purchased the wheels from shop, also in Ohio, that specializes in 19th century style wagon wheels.  One of the period references stated the carriages used "cart wheels."  These wheels fit that description and help keep the cannon under its 250 pound target weight.  I got the raw lumber from a local saw mill and dried, planed, cut and mortised it myself based on my reconstructed carriage design.

I had gotten to this point before it occurred to me to start photo documenting the construction process.  I have already cut the cheeks and mortised them for the transoms (cross pieces) and fitted the axle tree. The steel axle is actually a 1 inch pipe that fits the one inch hub on the wheels.  Here you see the bronze tube and the iron work I had made by a local blacksmith. These pieces had to be 1/4 inch or thicker to handle the recoil of the gun. 

Here you can see the cheek iron and axle brackets fitted to the wood, The bolts are in, but the nails holes and nails are not yet made.  The drag hooks were also made by the blacksmith to my specifications.
Here is the same stage from the rear. You can see that the cheek iron is still loose.  The rear drag hooks are fitted and in place.

The trail irons are all made from soft 1/8 inch thick steel.  I made these by carefully measuring and cold bending the steel in a vice and then hammering to get the clean square bends were needed. 
Next was the reinforcing band.  This was also made by cold bending and hammering the steel.  The drag ring is simply a eyelet and ring purchased from Lowe's.  I used square nuts and square lag bolts for all the hardware as hex nuts are a much later invention. 
A view from the front with the tube in place.  I've not yet fitted the cap squares at this point. Those are the half round brackets that go over the trunnions on the side of the tube.

This is the quoin bed, pronounced "coin" bed.  This is a level bed under the breech of the tube where the quoin, sometimes called a wedge is used to adjust the elevation of the tube.  You can see the groove in the quoin the matches the wood of the bed. This keeps the quoin from hopping around when the gun is fired.

I experiment with several types of axle pins.  This did NOT work as it jambed and was hard to remove. The end of the hollow axle will be filled before painting to give the appearance that it is solid iron.


Here is the completed gun minus paint.  Every thing is fitted except the rear bolt hole on the cap squares.  The flower type device on the side is simply a big decorative washer that I cut from sheet steel.  It reinforces the quoin transom bolt.

All the parts are fitted, so I took it all apart to paint it. I painted each piece separately and then reassembled to touch it up.

All of the iron work, ready for paint.

Here are the cheeks and iron work when I reassembled.  I used oil based paints.  We know that King's Howitzer were blue as was most American artillery at the time, because General Wayne specifically ordered "Prussian blue" for carriages.

The finished product!  Painted and back together. 
You can see close up pictures of the finished gun at this link:

 The first shots from the King's Howitzer!


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I've Been Away Too Long!

If you have been following this blog you know that it has been sometime since I posted.  I've been very preoccupied with putting the final touches to my new young reader's novel, seeing it into print and starting marketing process.  I've found that final step to be the most tedious and time consuming of the entire process! 

Over 42,000 people have visited this blog as of August 2014.  I'm humbled and gratified for that and I thank everyone who has visited here.  This blog will stay in place, but new blog posts, when I have time to write them, will be on my new author's website which you can find at

I encourage you to check my blog there from time to time, or sign up for website updates to let you know that something new has been posted.  I'm currently writing a sequel to my first book and it has already taken more of my time than I expected.

My latest book was release in July 2014.  The Archer's Son is getting great reviews and stayed #1 for a month in Amazon's Hot New Releases for Kid's Medieval Fiction.  You can read reviews or purchased at this LINK.

The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou is also on Amazon and is also available at most Books a Million stores.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

1,000 Year Old Saxon Skull Shows Six Sword Wounds

This set of remains may be the only "survivor" from the battle of Hastings, 1066.  Re-blogged from the Daily Mail UK.

Does this skull belong to a soldier of the Battle of Hastings? 1,000-year-old remains found near famous battlefield reveal man was hacked six times in the head from behind
By Sarah Griffiths
Published: 08:38 EST, 22 May 2014 | Updated: 11:15 EST, 22 May 2014
The famous battle took place nearly 1,000 years ago, but the badly scarred skull of a man could be the first-ever recorded victim of the Battle of Hastings.
Battle scarred: The badly damaged skull of a man (pictured)
could be the first-ever recorded victim of the Battle of Hastings.
Experts have revealed that it belongs to a 45-year-old man
Experts have revealed that it belongs to a 45-year-old man who was hacked six times with a sword to the back of his head – and could provide first-hand evidence of the brutal battle of 1066.
No bones have previously been discovered of anyone who fought and died during the historic event.
The skull forms part of a skeleton that was first dug up in 1994 during excavations in Lewes, East Sussex - around 20 miles from the famous battlefield.

The skeleton, which bears the marks of battle, was found in Lewes, around 20 miles from the famous battlefield, thought to be located in Battle, East Sussex

Bones were originally sent to experts at the University of York as part of preparations to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes.

But radiocarbon testing of the remains at the University of Edinburgh dated them to 28 years either side of 1063.
Scientists believe the man was therefore likely to have been involved in fighting at the time of the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings.

Based upon the way he was buried, they think he was probably British.
Osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst from the University of York said: ‘The first injury was probably a cut to the right side of the ear and upper jaw.

‘This was then followed by a series of sword cuts, all delivered from the left hand side behind the victim, in a downward and horizontal motion.’
Tim Sutherland, a battlefield expert from the University of York, said: 'The skeleton is apparently unique in that it appears to be the only individual ever recorded which could be related to the Norman invasion. A remarkable new story could be unfolding.' Sword marks are easily visible on the skull (pictured)
The Norman invaders were thought to have buried their dead in a mass grave, but there were records of the bones of English fighters being visible on the hillsides years later.

This skeleton was found on the site of a former medieval hospital.
No bones have previously been discovered of anyone who fought and died during the historic event, so the remains of the 45-year-old (pictured) thought to have died in battle, are a first
Tim Sutherland, a battlefield expert from the University of York, said: ‘The skeleton is apparently unique in that it appears to be the only individual ever recorded which could be related to the Norman invasion. A remarkable new story could be unfolding.’

Edwina Livesey from the Sussex Archaeological Society described the find as ‘shocking’.
‘When I heard the news I was completely gobsmacked. It begins to paint a picture of what might have happened in the aftermath.

‘They haven’t found any grave pits of the Normans. The ground is very acidic so the bones may not have survived.’
Ms Holst said that from bone analysis they could tell that the man ate a diet rich in marine fish and was at least 45 years old.

‘He had some spinal abnormalities and suffered from chronic infection of the sinuses.
‘He showed age-related wear and tear of the joints of his spine, shoulders and left wrist, which might have been uncomfortable.

‘He had lost a few teeth during life, possibly as a result of receding gums. He had two small tumours on his skull.’
Although he was violently killed, the man had sustained some other kind of head injury up to two years before his death.

She said: ‘He had sustained an injury to the left temple which caused a blood clot to form. It was well-healed at the time of his death.’
English Heritage said: ‘This is a fascinating discovery and a potentially very interesting piece of evidence from the second half of the 11th century. It certainly demonstrates the violence of the period.

‘It would be a reasonable hypothesis that this individual could have some links to the Norman Conquest, but further research is essential in understanding the potential significance of this skeleton.’


In late 2013, experts claimed that King Harold died with an arrow in his eye not at the site of Battle Abbey (which has a dedicated vistor's centre - but on a spot that is now a roundabout on the A2100.
Archaeologists from Channel 4's Time team excavated grounds around the Abbey and the other site proposed by historian John Grehan.

They found no evidence that either place was where the army of William the Conqueror triumphed over the forces of Harold, the English King.
Using aerial laser imaging, Time Team then mapped the terrain - on the basis of which a group of experts agreed that the most likely location for the battle was a roundabout joining Upper and Lower Lake in the town of Battle.

Time Team said the mapping had ‘proved’ that the traditional battlefield - on the land directly below the Abbey - would have been too boggy for William’s cavalry.
‘Military analysts studied the data to see where Harold, a skilled commander, would most probably have mounted his defence,’ explained a Channel 4 spokesman.

‘They identified the only ideal battlefield. It seems Harold’s fearsome Saxon shield wall straddled a narrow strategic pass that is on today’s A2100.’

A new battle: In late 2013, experts claimed that King Harold died with an arrow in his eye not at the site of Battle Abbey (which has a dedicated vistor's centre - but on a spot that is now a roundabout on the A2100

Read more:

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Gut Wrenching Experience - Kamikazes at Okinawa

I had the opportunity to interview a World War II US Navy veteran for another project recently.  I thought I would share here also.  All photos are courtesy of Zane Geier.

Zane Geier
US Navy 1944 – 1946

Interview by Mark Hubbs


 Someone who does not know Zane Geier would have trouble realizing he is 88 years old and a veteran of World War II.  He is easy to smile; an active man with an engaging sense of humor.  He is as sharp now as he has ever  been.  I have known Zane for over ten years, but really only learned the story of his early life and war time experiences as a result of this interview.

Zane was born in May 1926 in the little village of Weaver, Alabama, just north of Anniston.  His first up close experience related to the War were the many soldiers from Fort McClellan who tramped by his community on road marches and field maneuvers when he was in high school.  When soldiers stopped to draw water from his family well, he realized they represented an entrepreneurial opportunity.  He followed the marching columns on his bicycle and cornered the market on Baby Ruths and Milky Ways each time they stopped for a rest break.    
Zane Geier just out of boot camp
Zane’s father took a job with the Department of the Navy before the War began and the family moved several times from 1936 to 1944.  Zane did very well in school despite the fact that he attended four different high schools in Alabama, South Carolina, California and Florida.  With his graduation in May 1944 from Pensacola High School, he followed the path of millions of young men and answered his country’s call.  The Navy was the obvious choice due to his father’s career in Navy shipyards.
Boot camp was at Camp Perry, Virginia, near Williamsburg, and then on to radar training at the Fleet Training School at Virginia Beach, Virginia.  The training at the Fleet Training School was fast and intense as the Navy struggled to provide the new sailors and new ships needed for the final push in the Pacific theater. 
The Navy wasted no time in getting Seaman Geier to sea.  He was sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and assigned to a brand new destroyer escort, the USS Cross.  Almost all of the sailors were newer than the ship.  One hundred and ten men were assigned to the Cross.  Ninety five of them were brand new sailors just out of boot camp and “A” school.  A cadre of only fifteen “old salts” had to train and blend this group of youngsters into an effective fighting crew.  Zane was on board the ship when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt broke a bottle of champagne on the bow of the USS Cross during its commissioning ceremony.
The USS Cross as she was outfitted for the Pacific theater
Although Zane was a radarman during normal operations of the ship, his battle station “was on a 4 barrel, 40 millimeter gun mount on the starboard side, forward.  I sat on the right hand side and turned the crank that made the gun move laterally.” 
Zane's 40mm gun firing during training exercises.  Zane is the seated man on the front left of the gun tub

Zane at his Battle Station
After a shakedown cruise to Bermuda and convoy duty in the Atlantic, the USS Cross was slated for duty with the Third Fleet in the Pacific.  The Cross rendezvoused with the fleet at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Island, and from there island hopped to Ulithi and the Northern Marianas.   The Navy and Army were gearing up for what would become the largest, most intense, campaign of the Pacific war – the Battle of Okinawa. 
As the battle raged on the island of Okinawa, the US Navy protected the landing sites from the Japanese Navy and air forces.  This is where the Japanese first used Kamikazes on a gigantic scale.  Over 1,600 allied ships ringed the island and each became targets for Japanese suicide flyers.  Destroyers and destroyer escorts, such as the USS Cross, formed the outer ring of the fleet defenses.  They provided early warning radar and fire support against Japanese planes that attempted to break this perimeter to get at the aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers.  As a result these smaller ships often became primary targets when the Japanese flyers realized they could not break through.  Almost 5,000 American sailors were killed in Kamikaze attacks during the course of the Okinawa Campaign. 
Zane recalls, “many occasions when the Cross and sister ships were engaged in pumping out a wall of bullets at incoming Kamikaze.  It was a gut wrenching experience to see a plane coming towards us, low on the water, getting closer and closer . . . and a feeling of relief to see the plane explode . . . sometimes only 100 yards or so away . . .and feel the shock and hear a sharp scraping sound as flying debris struck the ship.”
As the Battle of Okinawa wound down in late June 1945, the US Third Fleet moved its area of operations off the island of Honshu in preparation of the invasion of the Japanese homeland.  However, the destruction of the Japanese cites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American atomic bombs sealed the fate of Japan.   They formally surrendered on August 25, 1945.
A sailor is transferred from the battleship USS West Virginia to the USS Cross
The USS Cross was damaged during a massive typhoon in October 1945.  The ship was towed back to the US for repair, but not before its crew was scattered and reassigned to other ships.  Zane found a new assignment aboard the USS Hornet, one of the most famous aircraft carriers of World War II.  The Hornet participated in Operation “Magic Carpet” when it ferried several thousand US soldiers back to the United States.  Zane was discharged from the Navy on June 4, 1946.
On the flight deck of the USS Hornet
Zane Geier served as a shore patrolman in the months before his discharge in 1946
Zane became an auditor for the US General Accounting Office after the war, and even continued his nautical career in the Navy Reserves in the late 1940s.  He received a degree in accounting from the University of Alabama in 1949, and attended Harvard University, Graduate School of Business Administration, and completed the Program for Management Development in 1963.
Zane is proud of his service during World War II.  He also celebrated the sacrifice and heroism of veterans of other wars by participating in Civil War and War of 1812 living history and reenactment programs for many years.  However, he understands the futility of war and abhors it as a political means.  He says:
“I am opposed to war and favor peaceful coexistence instead.  Although I fought in a big war, and have observed the United States’ involvement in a long succession of others, I am convinced it is all for naught.  In the long run, most wars, even the Crusades, have accomplished little.  The pain and suffering and loss of life and property caused by war have been immense.”
Zane Geier in 2012


Monday, March 17, 2014

"So Our Souls Can Be At Peace" Recovering the Dead of the Russian Front

      My job as an archaeologist for the US Army sometime takes me to far flung places.  On several occasions I've been involved in the recovery of Japanese soldiers killed in action at Kwajalein Atoll in the Central Pacific.  Remains are often inadvertently discovered during infrastructure improvements on the island.  Indeed, over 3,000 Japanese service members are buried in yet undiscovered individual and mass graves across Kwajalein Island alone. 

      Even though these were enemies of my country, I can't help but be saddened by these discoveries.  It is always sobering to remember that these men died and were buried by strangers, in a land far from home.  In almost every case, the families of these men never learned of the circumstances of their death, only that they were lost at Kwajalein.

     The emotions expressed by the people in this article reveal much of what I experienced, but magnified many times over.   The archaeologists and volunteers recovering the missing in Russia are doing to account for their countrymen and for those still living who were left behind. My hat is off to these people and what they are accomplishing.

    Visit the website below to find more information and many more photos
Digging for their lives: Russia's volunteer body hunters
By Lucy Ash BBC News, Russia

Of the estimated 70 million people killed in World War Two, 26 million died on the Eastern front - and up to four million of them are still officially considered missing in action. But volunteers are now searching the former battlefields for the soldiers' remains, determined to give them a proper burial - and a name.

Olga Ivshina walks slowly and carefully through the pine trees, the beeps of her metal detector punctuating the quiet of the forest. "They are not buried very deep," she says.
"Sometimes we find them just beneath the moss and a few layers of fallen leaves. They are still lying where they fell. The soldiers are waiting for us - waiting for the chance to finally go home."

Nearby, Marina Koutchinskaya is on her knees searching in the mud. For the past 12 years she has spent most of her holidays like this, far away from home, her maternity clothes business, and her young son.
"Every spring, summer and autumn I get this strange sort of yearning inside me to go and look for the soldiers," she says. "My heart pulls me to do this work."

They are part of a group called Exploration who have travelled for 24 hours in a cramped army truck to get to this forest near St Petersburg. Conditions are basic - they camp in the woods - and some days they have to wade waist-deep through mud to find the bodies of the fallen. The work can be dangerous, too. Soldiers are regularly discovered with their grenades still in their backpacks and artillery shells can be seen sticking out of the trees. Diggers from other groups elsewhere in Russia have lost their lives.
Marina holds up an object she has found, it looks like a bar of soap, but it is actually TNT. "Near a naked flame it's still dangerous, even though it has been lying in the ground for 70 years," she says.

Many countries were scarred by World War Two, but none suffered as many losses as the Soviet Union.
On 22 June 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest and bloodiest campaign in military history, aimed at annexing vast areas of the USSR to the Third Reich. St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, was one of his main targets. In less than three months, the advancing German army had encircled the city and started pounding it from the air.

But attempts to take the city by storm fell through, so Hitler decided to starve it into surrender. For more than two years, the Red Army fought desperately to cut through German lines.
Olga and Marina are working near the town of Lyuban, 80km (50 miles) south of St Petersburg. Here, in an area of just 10 sq km, an estimated 19,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in just a few days in 1942. So far the diggers have found 2,000 bodies.

Ilya Prokoviev, the most experienced of the Exploration team, is carefully poking the ground with a long metal spike. A former army officer with a droopy blonde moustache, he found his first soldier 30 years ago while walking in the countryside.
"I was crossing a swamp when suddenly I saw some boots sticking out of the mud," he says.

"A bit further away, I found a Soviet helmet. Then I scraped away some moss and saw a soldier. I was shocked. It was 1983, I was 40km from Leningrad and there lay the remains of a soldier who hadn't been buried. After that there were more and more and more, and we realised these bodies were to be found everywhere - and on a massive scale."
There was little time in the heat of battle to bury the dead, says Valery Kudinsky, the defence ministry official responsible for war graves.

"In just three months the German death machine covered more than 2,000km (1,250 miles) of our land. So many Red Army units were killed, wiped out or surrounded - how could anyone think about burials, let alone records of burials, in such conditions?"

Immediately after the war, the priority was to rebuild a shattered country, he says. But that does not explain why later the battlefields weren't cleared and the fallen soldiers not identified and buried.

The diggers now believe that some were deliberately concealed. The governing council of the USSR issued decrees in 1963 about destroying any traces of war, says Ilya.
"If you take a map showing where battles took place, then see where all the new forest plantations and building projects were located, you'll find they coincide with the front line. Nobody will convince me they planted trees for ecological reasons."

If you crouch down in the woods near Lyuban, a series of grooves in the earth can be clearly made out.
"They actively planted new trees on the battlefield - they ploughed furrows and put the trees exactly in the places where the unburied soldiers were lying," Marina says.

She recently unearthed a helmet and in order to find its owner, the team had to uproot two nearby trees.
"When we cleaned away some clumps of earth from the roots we saw two hands tangled up in them. Then we found a pelvis and some ribs between the roots. So we think the whole soldier was underneath the roots and the trees were growing on top of him."

But how could anyone - farmers or workmen - get on a tractor and plough over land littered with human remains?
"If they refused to plough a field because there were corpses or bones in it, they'd just be sacked," says Ilya. "If you lost your job in those days you were a non-person - you didn't exist. That's what life was like in the Soviet Union." Plus, it was less than two decades after the war. The workers had endured far worse horrors, he says.
There are horrors for the diggers, too.

Nevskaya Dubrovka, on the banks of the River Neva, was the scene of one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Leningrad siege. The Red Army fought tooth and nail to secure a narrow stretch of river bank in an attempt to break the blockade. Hundreds of thousands of troops, used as little more than cannon fodder, were slaughtered.
Diggers discovered a mass grave in the area last summer. The soldiers may have been thrown into the pit by their comrades or local villagers as a hasty form of burial, or even by the German Army, anxious to prevent an epidemic among its troops.

"There must have been 30 or 40 soldiers in there. Four layers of people one on top of the other," says Olga, as she sits by the campfire. "But the skeletons were all mixed up and smashed. Here you have a head - there a leg…" She pauses and stares into the fire. "Once you've seen that, you'll never forget it. You are no longer the same person you were before."
Going back to city life and her job with the BBC Russian Service is sometimes hard after a few weeks in the forest. When her friends in Moscow complain about not being able to afford a good enough car or designer clothes, she feels alienated.

"Everything seems so pointless - even my job as a journalist - and sometimes I think, 'What am I doing?' But here, on the dig, I feel we are doing something which is needed."
For Olga - who sang hymns to Communism in her primary school, then learnt about profit and loss at secondary school - volunteering as a digger also provides a moral compass in confusing times.

"Sometimes you need to know that you are doing something which is important, that you are not just a piece of dust in this universe. This work connects us to our past. It's like an anchor which helps us to stay in place even during a storm."
Finding the dead is only one part of their mission. Rescuing them from anonymity is the other.

In Moscow an eternal flame burns at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the shadow of the Kremlin Wall, but for the diggers, the best way to honour those who lost their lives is to give them back their identities.
"The soldier had a family, he had children, he fell in love," says Ilya. "Being unknown is nothing to be proud of. We are the ones who made him unknown."

But discovering who they were is not always easy, especially after so much time has passed.
"The more data we can collect from the spot, the better the chance we have to identify a soldier," says Alexander Konoplov, the leader of the Exploration group. Sometimes they find old coins with the soldiers, given to them by their families. The belief was that if the family lent him a few coins, he would come home to repay the loan.

But while personal items can build up a picture of the person, they can't help find his name, or place of birth. Initials scratched into spoons and bowls are good. But the key is usually an ID tag.
During World War Two, Soviet soldiers' ID tags were not made of metal - they were small ebony capsules containing a small piece of paper for their personal details. Sadly, the papers are often illegible. Others were left blank because many soldiers were superstitious - they believed filling in the forms would lead to certain death.

Alexander, who ran his own business selling food products before becoming a full-time digger, is holding a bullet case plugged with a small piece of wood. He hopes that it is an improvised ID tag. But when he turns it upside down in his hand, what comes out of it is not a roll of paper, but a trickle of brown liquid.

"Sometimes we find messages with the soldier's name," says Alexander. "Some wrote, 'If I am killed, please pass this on to my girlfriend or my mum.' You can't help feeling touched by it."

Exploration is one of 600 groups of diggers from all over Russia who have found and reburied a total of 500,000 soldiers so far.
These teams are known as the "white diggers", but there are also those dubbed "black diggers" who search for medals, guns, coins or even gold teeth which they sell online or to specialist dealers. They are not interested in identifying the soldiers - they just leave the bones in the ground.

Alexander has a strict set of guidelines about how the remains should be excavated, labelled and stored. Each soldier is photographed and their location is recorded and entered into a digital database.
If a decades-old ID tag cannot be deciphered by the team on the ground, it is carefully packed and sent to the team's headquarters in the Volga city of Kazan.

The team's technician, Rafik Salakhiev, uses ultraviolet light and digital imaging to reveal the faded pencil marks. "Let's try to enhance purple colours on this yellow paper," he says. "We can reduce the saturation and yes! We start to see some letters…"
Once a name emerges, the diggers use old army lists, classified documents and contacts in the military or police to identify the soldier precisely and to locate surviving members of his family.

"Every new search gets to me as if it was the first one," says Rafik. Many of the relatives are now elderly and may not be in good health. "When you call the relatives, before telling them the news, you try to prepare them. Even if they have been waiting for a long time."
But tracing a soldier's family can take years - on occasions more than a decade - especially if the family moved after the war.

When, in 1942, people in First Lt Kustov's home village heard he was missing, they suspected him of deserting and collaborating with the Germans. They branded his young son and daughter traitor's children and the family were forced to leave. It took Ilya Prokoviev months to track them down.
"When we told them that we had found their father's remains, for them the feeling was just indescribable. They knew that he hadn't just deserted, that he couldn't have behaved like that, but there was never any proof until 60 years later."

From the archives, the diggers worked out that Kustov had been the commander of one of Stalin's notorious shtrafbats, a battalion made up of prisoners and deserters. Only a trusted officer and staunch communist would have been appointed to such a post.
"They had managed to restore historical truth and honour their father's memory," says Ilya. "It was the main event of their lives, I think." Kustov's children took his remains and buried them next to their mother, who had waited her whole life for her husband to return.

Near the banks of the River Neva, close to the mass grave found by diggers, a Russian Orthodox priest chants prayers as he walks around the rows of bright red coffins laid out on the grass.
The children, grand-children and great-grand-children of the soldiers they unearthed look on, some quietly sobbing.

Valentina Aliyeva is here to bury the father she has not seen since she was four years old. For seven decades, the only link she had with him was a black and white photo of their former family home.
"My mother remarried some years later and everyone told me to call my stepfather Daddy. But I refused - I knew who my real dad was," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "What those diggers have achieved means so much to me. I can't tell you how grateful I am."

Tatiana Uzarevich and Lyudmila Marinkina, twin sisters in their early 50s, have travelled from the remote region of Kamchatka - nine hours away by plane. The diggers found their grandfather's ID tag in the mass grave. When they were unable to trace his family, the group put out an appeal on the evening news.
The twins' elderly mother was stunned when she heard his name - Alexander Golik - the family had searched in vain for years. His disappearance had left his wife and children destitute. "The fact that he was missing in action meant that my grandmother was not entitled to any of the financial support given to other relatives after the Great Patriotic War. She didn't get a penny and she had four children to raise," says Lyudmila.

"My mum was so hungry all the time, she begged the other kids for pieces of bread at school.
"She only remembers the shape of her fathers' hands - but she had memories of a kind, good man," says Tatiana. "We just had to come to this reburial service to visit the place where he died and accompany him to his final resting place."

The walls of the large, newly dug grave are draped with red cloth - an act of respect normally accorded only to army generals. Young men dressed in Soviet-style army uniforms form a guard of honour. Visibly moved, as coffin after coffin is carried past to be buried, some of them look up to the sky. There is a belief that birds flying overhead transport the souls of the dead.

There are more than 100 coffins - each contains the bones of 12 to 15 men. The diggers would like each soldier to have his own, but they can't afford the extra 1,500 they would need for today's service.
This is the culmination of months of work by the volunteers. It's what it's all for - bringing a semblance of order to the moral chaos of the past, and paying tribute to those who gave their lives.

In the spring they will resume their searches in the forests and fields where so many were slaughtered. They are determined to continue until the last man is found. But it could be a life's work - or more.
"There are so many unburied soldiers, it will take decades to find them. There will definitely be work for our grandchildren," says Marina. "But nature is working against us. The remains are decomposing and it is getting harder to find the bones, ID tags and army kit." The more years that go by. The less information there is.

"We need to continue to do this for ourselves, so our souls can be at peace," says Ilya. "It has become the meaning of our lives."