Watching François Dupeyron’s film, “The Officers’ Ward”, based on the experiences of a French soldier who had suffered life-changing disfigurement in the opening days of the First World War, it was difficult to grasp that the men who had survived to receive reconstructive surgery had been among the lucky ones; they had not died on the front line, or at a casualty clearing station, or at a field hospital; they had not been eviscerated by an artillery shell, or disappeared without trace in a vast pool of mud. They had not joined the ranks of the variously recorded dead.
It was only at the Somme in July that the realisation struck home that one could be dead in various ways.
Accustomed to encountering graves of unknown soldiers while walking through the Commonwealth war cemeteries of Picardy and Flanders, a request from a friend for a photograph of a stone marking the grave of “An Irish Soldier of the Great War” prompted a search for nuances of the unknown.
Some unknowns were specific, the stone stated that the grave was of a soldier, a sergeant, a lieutenant of a particular regiment, even among the ranks of the officers it being not always possible to determine which gathering of human remains had once been which officer.
Some unknowns were defined by nationality. A stone commemorating “An Irish Soldier of the Great War” was quickly found, it must have been possible to determine that the soldier had served in an Irish regiment, but no more information had been available. There were similar nationality-based inscriptions: Australians, Canadians, and, of course, “A British Soldier of the Great War”, so many British soldiers of the Great War.
“What does this mean?”
Ian Gumm, our guide, had explained. There had been insufficient clues as to the men’s identity to give them names or ranks or even regiments, but it must have been that the shreds of uniform still attached to whatever had remained of the corpses had shown the men had served among the soldiers from particular countries.
The explanation brought home the horror of what the inscription, “A Soldier of the Great War” really meant. There was not sufficient found to determine even what country this man had left to die in this hell. Sebastian Faulks’ captures a sense of its meaning in lines from his novel Charlotte Grey. Levade, a Jew in Nazi-occupied France talks about the cemeteries from the Great War:
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.
“A Soldier of the Great War” meant so little was found that what remained could no longer be identified with even a nation.
Eric Bogle’s song, “The Green Fields of France”, says:
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean,
Or, young Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?
The inscription “A Soldier of the Great War” expresses the bloody obscenity of the war to end all wars; in the sparseness of its words it conveys unimaginable horror.