I went along on the trip last weekend to the Western Front, accompanying a group with the tour firm that I am involved with - Historical Trips (www.historicaltrips.com). It was fascinating, of course, and chilling, visiting all those sites of such unimaginable carnage and slaughter - Ypres, Messines, the Somme, Cambrai, the Lochnagar Crater. But what struck me most, perhaps, was the sheer number of 'missing' that one saw listed on so many memorials... How on earth can one 'lose' so many people?
I first encountered this aspect a few years ago when - in a fit of enthusiasm for genealogical research - I tracked down my great uncle (via the Commonwealth War Graves Commission www.cwgc.org) Charles Moorhouse, who I had been told was killed during the Great War.
Not far from Ypres, is another memorial - that of Tyne Cot - which was built to accommodate and commemorate those of the missing that did not fit on the vast Menin Gate... The Tyne Cot memorial, therefore, commemorates an additional 35,000 UK and Commonwealth soldiers listed as "missing".
Totting up the figures from those four memorials, all within a few miles of each other in northern France and Belgium, one quickly reaches nearly 200,000, a large proportion of the total estimated 500,000 British and Commonwealth "missing" of World War One. (according to Fabian Ware's study of 1937)
It is still staggering to me that an army can 'lose' half a million men in a war. Of course, there are many unnamed graves on the Western Front, but they account for only around 180,000 of the missing, leaving nearly 330,000 - a third of a million men - completely unaccounted for. Where are their bodies? Were they atomised by shellfire? Or simply sucked deep into the Flanders mud? We just don't know. I appreciate that French and Belgian farmers are constantly turning up war material and bones with their ploughs - we saw some of their 'iron harvest' stacked at the edge of a field - but 330,000 men? 330.000 skulls, 660,000 femurs and tibias... Simply astonishing. For those that teach World War One, it is perhaps worth stressing this aspect (if they don't already) as it brings home the sheer horror of the fighting and the scale of the sacrifice - the blood price - that was paid by all sides. Lest we forget.