Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Missing of World War One

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 (  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 Charles Moorhouse, who I had been told was killed during the Great War.

Dud Corner
I read on the CWGC website that Charles had been killed in April 1918 and was listed on the memorial at Dud Corner cemetery near Loos in the Pas de Calais.  Visiting the site, I found that my great-uncle was one of over 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers commemorated there who 'have no known grave': just a name, engraved on a large marble plaque, fixed to the cemetery wall.

Menin Gate
I hadn't really thought about Charles, or the "missing", again until this weekend.  Naturally, on our tour, we visited the beautiful and sombre Menin Gate at Ypres, where nearly 55,000 names are inscribed of those British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres salient and 'have no known grave'.  To their eternal credit, the people of Ypres mark that sacrifice every evening at 8.00 with a short service of remembrance and the sounding of the Last Post.

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".

The following day, our tour made its way to the battlefields of the Somme, where famously, some 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day alone.  But the Somme offensive lasted over four months, and the meat-grinder would scarcely slacken.  Consequently, the nearby village of Thiepval was chosen for the construction of a vast memorial to the missing of the battle - over 72,000 names are inscribed on Lutyens' strangely beautiful arch - the largest British war memorial in the world.

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.

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