Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Neil Hanson's "Unknown Soldiers"

Neil Hanson is the prolific and successful author of an acclaimed series of popular histories including The Custom of the Sea, The Dreadful Judgement, and The Confident Hope of a Miracle.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his more recent book Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Unknown Soldiers is true to the book in one sense: I wanted it to reflect in unflinching, soldier's-eye-view detail, the experience of trench warfare in all its horror, for example, 'a three hour march to reach the front lines laden with equipment and under constant gunfire, the last hour and a quarter in a narrow communication trench, and the last 500 metres from the communication trench into the front line in the open, from one shell-hole to another. It was hardly endurable... we lie down in an unfinished sap, exhausted and almost sick. Our uniforms are dripping with sweat.... The trenches look terrible, all shot to pieces. Numerous bits of equipment belonging to our dead and wounded are lying about. There are a large number of corpses and we can hardly bear the smell... Many here - nearly all - have gone mad and have had to be taken away.’

However, page 99 tells the story only from a German soldier's perspective and the book as a whole draws on a larger canvas, resurrecting three of the missing of the First World War - a Briton, a German and an American - and bring them briefly back to life, if only in the pages of the book. It also tells the tale of the symbolic Unknown Soldiers: how and why unidentified and unidentifiable bodies came to be chosen at random, and buried at Arlington Cemetery, Virginia; in Westminster Abbey, London; beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and in places from Bandung to Baghdad - though not in Berlin - in memory of all the unknown dead of each country, at ceremonies that brought their nations to a standstill amid scenes of public mourning that have never been repeated - even the public hysteria at the death of Diana Princess of Wales, pales into insignificance beside the reaction to the burial of the unknown Soldiers of Britain, France, America and all the other combatant nations.

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 every single one of those millions was an individual human tragedy, a young life cut short, a child orphaned, a woman widowed, parents robbed of their son. None were 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 deprived even of the consolation of a grave-site, and for them, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier became the grave and gravestone of their lost loved ones. In almost every other combatant nation an unknown soldier was also buried at some national shrine and, at once became the focus of a pilgrimage that continues to this day.

Unknown Soldiers is based on the personal testimony contained in the letters and diaries of my three chosen individuals - the ‘war memoirs of the dead’ - and I have also drawn on the eyewitness testimony of scores of other soldiers present in the same trenches and battlefields, and the recollections and oral traditions of their families and descendants; indeed my book is dedicated not just to the Great War dead, but to their surviving relatives, who 90 years later, are still keeping their memory alive. 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 are not clich├ęd stereotypes: Iowa farm-boys, 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. They disappeared as completely as if they had ‘gone through a mirror, leaving only a diminishing shadow’. No trace remained; the war had claimed even their names. Their story is the story of the Unknown Soldiers.
Read an excerpt from Unknown Soldiers and learn more about the book and author at Neil Hanson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue