It is the centenary of the interment of the remains of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey, a hundred years since the human shreds that were once a person were buried beneath mud that had been brought from the battlefields of Flanders and France.
It was not before I had visited the Western Front at least half a dozen times that I came to realize that a soldier could be unknown to varying degrees. There were unknown soldiers about whom something was know, and unknown soldiers who were entirely unknown.
Some gravestones of the unknowns in the war grave cemeteries are specific in their detail. The stone will state that the grave was of a soldier, a sergeant, a lieutenant of a particular regiment. Even among the ranks of the officers, it was not always possible to determine which gathering of human remains had once been which officer.
Some unknowns are defined by nationality. With an interest in Irish regiments, I would often find stones commemorating “An Irish Soldier of the Great War.” It must have been possible to determine that the soldier had served in an Irish regiment, but no more information had been available. There are similar nationality-based inscriptions: Australians, Canadians, and, of course, “A British Soldier of the Great War”, so, so many British soldiers of the Great War.
The details on the stones meant 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 simple starkness of the words,”A Soldier of the Great War” meant that so little was found that what remained could no longer even be identified with even a nation. There was not sufficient left of what once had been a human being to determine even what country this man had left to die in this hell.
The grave of the Unknown Soldier would have reminded those gathered on 11th November 1920 of the horrible reality of the war they had experienced. The scraps of flesh and bone that were interred were a reminder of the utter degradation of humanity in the trenches of the Western Front.
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.