Book review: The Unknown Soldier

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Subtitled The Story of the Missing in the Great War, Neil Hanson’s work drips with sadness. As the subtitle suggests, it deals with those many men whose names grace the Menin Gate in Belgium and the many similar monuments that dot the former front-line from the sea to the Alps.

Hanson personalises these millions of unknown soldiers, men who have no known graves or who fell and were buried namelessly “Known unto God” as their tombstones suggest, by biographing three: British private Alec Reader, German infantry officer Paul Hub and American aviator and ace George Seibold. The book then documents how the tombs of the unknowns came about and makes an educated guess about the background of the Unknown in Westminster Abbey. Of interest is that he is the only one of the millions of Britons, known or unidentified, who fell in that disastrous conflict ever to be returned for burial in his native land. The others remain where they fell, in Flanders fields, where the poetic poppies grow.

“The bald statistics of the Great War – nine million soldiers dead or missing, twenty-one million maimed or wounded and at least twelve million civilians killed – tend to numb us to the fact that each one of those millions was a human tragedy, a life cut short, a child orphaned (or never born) a woman widowed, parents robbed of a child,” Hanson writes in his introduction.
“None was more tragic than the unknown dead, men lost without trace in the carnage of the battlefields or whose mangled bodies retained no form of identification. The grieving families of such men were robbed even of the consolation of a funeral and a grave site, and for them the grave of the Unknown Warrior and the Cenotaph became the tomb and tombstone of their lost loved ones. In almost every other combatant nation an unknown soldier was a also buried at some national shrine and, just as in Britain, each at once became the focus of a pilgrimage that continues to this day.”
“In the course of my research , I read literally hundreds of soldiers` diaries and letters. Out of all those unknown dead, I chose three men … whose stories spoke most strongly and movingly to me. In the end I felt they selected themselves as much as they were chosen by me. The Unknown Soldier is based on the personal testimony contained in the largely unpublished letters and diaries they left behind – the ‘war memoirs of the dead.` I have also drawn on the recollections of their families and the eyewitness testimony of scores of other soldiers present in the same trenches, aerodromes and battlefields, though I have sifted out, as one German soldier remarked, the views of ‘people who write fine-sounding letters (but) are mostly running around miles away from the trenches.` Nothing has been invented or over dramatised; every statement is underpinned by the personal testimony of those who were there, or knew the chosen men.”
“They are of different nationalities, backgrounds, personalities and circumstances. They were not clichéd stereotypes; Iowa farmboys, chirpy Cockneys, Prussians with bristling moustaches. They are young men, barely beginning life`s journey, each with their own hopes, fears, ambitions and dreams. Their tracks, faint as smoke in the wind, intersect time and again, but they are united only in death, for each was killed on the Somme, within gunshot sound of each other, and each – like three million of their fellows – has no known grave.” Who were Hub, Reader and Seibold? The reviewer urges the reader to find out.
As we prepare for our annual November 11 homage to the fallen, it will do well to remember why we do it. The Unknown Soldier reminds us – or ought to – why and whom we remember.         
Neil Hanson
The Unknown Soldier
The Story of the Missing in the Great War
Doubleday
London
2005