The Searchers: The Quest for the Lost of the First World War by Robert Sackville-West - review by David Crane

David Crane

Memorials to Doomed Youth

The Searchers: The Quest for the Lost of the First World War


Bloomsbury 333pp £25

If anyone wonders why the First World War still holds its grip on our imagination, they need look no further than the ways in which it was commemorated. The most vivid reminders of that war are in Belgium and France, but there can hardly be a town, village, school, railway station or public building across Britain where there is not a memorial to the dead of the Great War.

The annual ceremony at the Cenotaph, the grave of the Unknown Warrior, the poppy, the two-minute silence – these, alongside the cemeteries and memorials of the Western Front, are all legacies of the Great War. At the beginning of that war there was virtually no provision for the burial of the dead, but under the leadership of the autocratic visionary Fabian Ware, an organisation that began life as a volunteer mobile ambulance unit, searching for wounded soldiers on the retreat from Mons in 1914, grew into the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), with responsibility for finding, identifying, burying and commemorating something like a million British and empire dead.

While the story of the IWGC – now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) – has been told often enough, that scarcely matters when it is retold as well as it is here. While some of this material will be familiar to many readers, I’m not sure that anyone

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