The human cost of the First World War’s devastated landscapes was often described day-by-day in memoirs and war diaries, producing some of the most exhaustively documented and personalised locations ever to be considered for historical study.
Yet the remains of those who created these places through their own deaths are often lost, and in such incomprehensible numbers that they became something new: ‘The Missing’.
In the post-war years, they were remembered on monuments and in cemeteries, ‘made present’ by absence, by anonymity rather than by naming. The bereaved had no bodies over which to grieve, only the landscape itself and a few souvenirs sent home from the front.
To this challenging topic van Emden brings his trademark eye for the emotional detail in the individual stories that illuminate broader issues.
One of these concerned the accuracy of personal details regarding burials: was the name correct; was the location accurate; was there a body at all beneath the grave marker? The conditions of finding, extracting, moving, and identifying the decomposing dead were often so harrowing that, unsurprisingly, many mistakes were made.
The heart of the book sees the author following the post-war search by a grieving mother for her son, RAF pilot Francis Mond, who disappeared in 1918 with his observer Edgar Martyn. Along with investigating the background of recovering bodies and battlefield pilgrimages, van Emden reproduces Angela Mond’s letters to officialdom, in which she claims that some named graves may be misidentified and in fact contain her son instead.
Undeterred by negative replies, letters to Sir Fabian Ware, founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), and Sir William Tyrrell, later British Ambassador to Paris, soon followed.
She tracked down the drivers who had collected the two bodies, yet they did not support her contention. But when she found the RAF squadron leader involved in the aerial skirmish, he cast doubt on the official version.
Conclusive evidence came from a German Air Force report by Lieutenant Hans Kirschstein, and it became clear that an exhumation was required. The graves at Doullens Communal Cemetery were reopened on 20 March 1923. Although undoubtedly distressing, Angela Mond had been proved right – here at last were the remains of Francis and Edgar, under incorrect markers.
Van Emden tells this intriguing and tragic story with verve and insight. There are little-seen photographs of the post-war battlefields, cemeteries, and monuments, and of the Mond family, some taken by Francis himself. Unlike so many, the Monds had found their missing son, but were never the same again – a part of them forever gone.
Review by Nicholas J Saunders
This article was published in the October/November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.