The Unknown Soldier: The Story of the Missing of the Great War by Neil Hanson - review by Nigel Jones

Nigel Jones

Unforgettable, Unforgotten

The Unknown Soldier: The Story of the Missing of the Great War


Doubleday 543pp £20 order from our bookshop

Two years ago I was involved in an archaeological dig on the Somme. It was filmed for a TV documentary, my idea being that we might locate a dugout occupied by Wilfred Owen and his platoon during his baptism of fire on the Western Front – an experience immortalised in his iconic poem 'The Sentry'. In the event, we didn't find the dugout, but we did uncover not one but three skeletons – the remains of a trio of soldiers of the Great War (one British, two German) who did not return home when the Armistice silenced the guns on 11 November 1918, but found no known grave either, and remained undiscovered through nine decades and another war. They were simply listed as 'missing in action', or – in the beautiful phrase of Rudyard Kipling (whose only son John was one of them) that is chiselled on the tomb of every unidentified soldier buried in the hundreds of British war cemeteries that dot the fields of Flanders and north-east France – 'A soldier of the Great War – known unto God'.

Both these books concern the aftermath – what the cultural historian Paul Fussell called 'the appalling persistence' – of the Great War in our collective memory. It is appropriate that they appear now, in the month of what may well be the last Remembrance Day that the rapidly diminishing band

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

East of the Wardrobe

Follow Literary Review on Twitter