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The 1914-18 War has many epithets: the First World War (a title it acquired while it was still being fought), the Great War, most evocatively (and falsely) the War To End All Wars…
Nearly a hundred years after it first began, it still haunts the European sensibility like no other conflict before or since. Partly, this is because it occurred at the dawn of mass media, it was the first time that such widespread reporting of what was actually happening as it happened occurred. Reporting that didn't just reach governments and military families, but which touched everyone in the country. The war was being fought in a foreign land, but everyone at home would sooner or later be somehow involved. Partly it is the vivid destruction of a landscape over broad swathes of western Europe. The images of the destruction are inescapable. Mostly though, it is because of the sheer scale of loss in human terms. Over 5 million deaths among the allied servicemen and a further 3 million from the central powers, with a further 13 and 8 million respectively wounded – many of whom would die later of those wounds.
Some 16 'nations' were involved – and that is treating the British Empire as a single nation, and Austro-Hungary similarly.
There many were other 'firsts' about the First World War that stay in our minds. Technology and science were moving on a pace at the dawn of the 20th century and the military as always were in the vanguard. This war saw the first widespread use of poison gas, the first (and not always effective) use of tanks, of planes, and yet, oddly, it also became the most stagnant stationary wars ever fought. Both sides became dug in, in foul unliveable trenches, holding battle lines that scarcely shifted a few miles for the whole long experience.
It is also the earliest war from which their remains a solid archive of personal material – letters home, personal documents and mementoes, kept by the families. It is the earliest war that we can still "touch" on a very personal level.
It also gave us our modern rituals of remembrance.
Born out of that war were the Cenotaph – Britain's national memorial to its war dead – our still-honoured keeping of Armistice Day (and the adjacent Remembrance Sunday), the poppy as a symbol of Flanders fields and other places of similar bloodshed and, in Westminster Abbey, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
The unknown soldier who lies buried among the good and the great probably is a soldier. Great efforts were made to ensure that he would be a warrior (potentially a soldier or an airman or a sailor) for reasons that Hanson explains, but (as he also allows) other requirements pertained that imply that almost certainly 'a soldier' lies buried in the Abbey.
Whoever he was in life, that Unknown was the only one of the near one million British war-dead to be returned to his homeland and his state funeral some two years after the end of the war brought the entire country to a standstill, and marked the beginning of a 'pilgrimage' that continued for days and was to be repeated for years. Only the outbreak of a new World War would see a shifting to the public response.
We will never know who he was, that was part of the point, so that he could 'just possibly' be any mother's son, widow's husband, orphan's father, bereft's brother… but Hanson goes back to the war to show us not just who he might have been, but also who any of the American unknowns might have been, any of the Germans (although unlike the allies they did not take up the symbolism). Hanson picks three warriors, 'unknown' in the wider scale of things, but who can be known through the testimony of their own letters home and the memories of those who survived them: Alec Reader, George Seibold and Paul Hubb stand in for the millions of others.
Walking with them through the carnage was a padre, David Railton, who survived the conflict and was the originator of the idea for the abbey burial. He too is intrinsic to Hanson's telling of history.
And the view they give us on the war is breathtaking, moving, and above all intensely human.
Alec Reader was four months short of his eighteenth birthday when he went to war in August 1915, signing up to the Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles. Being technically under-age wasn't going to matter at a time when boys as young as fourteen were lying to get into the army. Later in the war, he would come to take a different view. He would live through the worst of the trenches but eventually be claimed on the Somme, just as a clerical oversight was slowing down his possible transfer out of the front lines.
Paul Hubb was a 23-year-old from Stetten-im-Remstal down near the German/Swiss border. Limping from a childhood accident that left him with one leg shorter than the other and short-sighted enough to need glasses didn't keep him from the front. He was working as a legal clerk when war was declared, but consummate with his position in society (as the son of a teacher, and fledgling member of the legal profession) he signed up immediately to the First Company of the 247th Infantry Regiment. He too would see the worst of the worst of the Somme and Passchendaele… he would be seriously injured in his inaugural visit to the lines, but return to struggle on. His jubilant all-for-the-fatherland tone slows and slides into depression as the long slog continued through until 1918. He'd have known the war was lost by the time he fell at Maricourt.
George Seibold was a newly-married 23-year-old when he joined the fight. As an American he'd have been well away from the horrors for the first three years of the war, but by 1917 the States had been moved to commit. Coming from a well-off family with Washington connections he'd have had a stellar political career in any other time. He'd already been to officer training school when the US declaration was issued in April 1917, but with the draft still being drawn up he didn't wait but volunteered for the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps. Aerial warfare was in its infancy but while it avoided the horrors of the trenches, it carried with it stresses and mental strain no less equivalent. The average "air-life" of pilots was reckoned at 48 hours. Seibold was last reliably spotted in the air. It's known roughly where his plane went down, and there is a witness report that might refer to him on the ground, but unconfirmed.
These three – and the padre that walked amongst them – are Hanson's guides to a very personal experience of war. He gives us only as little of the battle-plan and progress as we need to understand the context. For the most part he relies on the eye-witness testimony of these four (no doubt supported by letters and memories of others who fought and likely died along-side them). It's not so much a history book as a portrait of war. Images and thoughts. Impressions.
There are moments of humour, bleak as you'd expect, but also glimpses into the almost-taboo areas of triumphalism and a simple quest for adventure that drove them to go in the first place. It's significant that the author's chosen representatives are among those who went willingly and early, whose lives were freely given. And in the case of Seibold in particular the sheer exhilaration of flying seems to have been reason enough.
With the wealth of material available it's no surprise that a writer would choose those who could write a good letter and there is no shortage of the lyric and picturesque description of battlefield lulls among the fear and torment of action. There is also the self-analysis of the callousness of attitude that cannot help but creep in, when fallen fellows are used to prop up a trench wall or provide a semi-stable footway through glutinous mudfields. But it's the mundane details that linger. The similarities of thought on the two sides of the divide. And the differences: while Reader was writing home asking for money and socks, Hubb was scavenging from the battlefield to send food back to his starving family.
The Unknown Soldier would be a worthy read if it ended when all of our protagonists were dead. The most moving sections are yet to come. The final quarter of the book is given over to what happened after the Armistice: the campaigns to bring them home (or not), the construction of the Cenotaph and David Railton's notion of a single body to lie honoured for all of the fallen – a tradition that has been taken up around the world. The details of the selection of the Unknown Warrior, and the description of the Armisticetide in 1920 when he was brought home and lain to rest with all due ceremonial, "the Great Silence" of the day and the "Great Pilgrimage" that followed are both interesting and deeply touching to one who is several generations away from it all.
"Lest We Forget"
Published in paperback under the Corgi imprint of Transworld
668 pages, including a 29-page index, 26-page bibliography and 91 pages of notes.
Additionally there are 16 pages of photographic montages