Visiting the 1916 frontline, a cemetery was described as ‘communal’. It seemed an odd term; cemeteries by their nature are communal. Explained in clearer language, it meant a long trench had been dug and the bodies of the fallen had been laid in without any separation. The point was emphasised by the gravestones standing in a solid line, without space between them. The remains of those named lay somewhere beneath the patch of soil, but the precise location could not be specified.
Even such a wide interpretation of identity and location was not sufficient for some of the remains that had once been part of a human being; that had once been part of a person who had lived with their own hopes and dreams; that had once thought and talked and moved.
The unknown remains were dealt with in succinct terms At the top of the stone was inscribed, ‘A Soldier of the Great War’; further down, just three words, ‘Known Unto God’.
Listening to the descriptions of how German machine gun fire had cut down wave upon wave of soldiers; listening to how 100,000 soldiers had gone ‘over the top’ on 1st July 1916, of whom 60,000 became casualties, 20,000 of those dying; it was not convincing to suggest that God was somehow present in the process.
Words from Sebastian Faulks were remembered Not words from Birdsong, the novel that graphically captures the reality of trench warfare, but lines from his World War II novel, Charlotte Gray. Levade, a Jewish character living in Nazi-occupied France, reflects on his own end:
“No child born knows the world he is entering, and at the moment of his birth he is a stranger to his parents. When he dies, many years later, there may be regrets among those left behind that they never knew him better, but he is forgotten almost as soon as he dies because there is no time for others to puzzle out his life. After a few years he will be referred to once or twice by a grandchild, then by no one at all. Unknown at the moment of birth, unknown after death. This weight of solitude! A being unknown.
And yet, if I believe in God, I am known. On the tombs of the English soldiers, the ones too fragmented to have a name, I remember that they wrote ‘Known unto God’. By this they meant that here was a man, who did once have arms and legs and a father and a mother, but they could not find all the parts of him – least of all his name.
God will know me, even as I cannot know myself. If He created me, then He has lived with me. He knows the nature of my temptations and the manner of my failing. So I am not alone. I have for my companion the creator of the world.
At the hour of my death I would wish to be ‘known unto God’.”
If God is God at all, then he must know those who once possessed the random body parts that lay beneath this soil; and if God does not know them, then is he God at all?