About a decade from now, a brief news article will mark the death of the last remaining veteran of World War I. With his passing, the 20th-century's first global calamity will slip quietly from most people's memories – unless they have read Unknown Soldiers.
Journalist and narrative historian Neil Hanson has rescued a rich store of letters from the attics of three nations, using them to remind readers both of the horrors of war and the obligations of memory. "Unknown Soldiers" follows three young men. Each died in battle near France's Somme River, and now lies in an unknown grave.
Alec Reader, a 17-year-old telephone clerk, lied about his age at a London recruiting station and boasted in his first letters of duty in "rather a hot part" of the trenches. Such innocence did not last long: Just a year later, he wrote his younger brother that "once I get home I'm going to stick there like glue." He never made it.
Paul Hub's first trip outside Germany was in uniform in the fall of 1914. Hub kept up his spirits, reassuring his nervous parents that "there are only a few lice." But after four full years of war, his letters, too, grew dejected; he died in late summer 1918, well knowing the inevitability of his country's defeat.
The third, 23-year-old American George Seibold, left Chicago for pilot's training the day after his wedding. Of Seibold, we learn rather less; a German ace shot down his plane just months after Seibold learned to fly.
The men's letters, quoted here at length, recount the gruesome horror of war. In a worthy antidote to the adventure stories that today pass for military histories, mud, lice, rats, and mustard gas all get their due.
Against this, soldiers sustained themselves on little more than good-luck charms and rumors, and soon the thin veneer of civilization began to erode. Dehumanized by modern war, they brutalized the bodies of their enemies in turn. Patrols stripped corpses for souvenirs; snipers took special glee in knocking off burial parties.
Yet their own fallen were another matter. Under strict orders to ignore wounded comrades in the heat of battle, soldiers nonetheless strove heroically to protect their own dead. They repeatedly risked their lives to bury them, often with a dignity that proved short-lived. Some bodies, too hastily buried, reemerged from the earth during the next rainstorm or bombardment. It's a wonder they bothered.
Or is it? As the 70 men who remained from Alec Reader's 450-man battalion after the Battle of the Somme heard the repeated silences that followed the reading of names during roll call (even as they were told by top brass that the drive had failed because of their "lack of push") one readily understands why remembering the dead could be seen as an act not only of tenderness but also of audacity.
The book's final chapters relate official English and American efforts to honor the war dead. (Oddly, Hanson ignores postwar Germany.) Here Hanson is at his best, moving between political controversies and personal narratives.
National responses countered the crass commercialism of Thomas Cook's guided battlefield tours and the ghoulish and surreptitious work of French gravediggers who offered to unearth loved ones – for the right fee. The United States sent thousands of Gold Star Mothers to tour Flanders fields, but steamship companies demanded that African-American mothers travel in steerage.
"Unknown Soldier" tombs reflected the dehumanization of modern war, helping Western societies make peace with the millions of dead who would remain forever unidentified. But, as Hanson shows, democratic impulses were at work, too, as the fallen everyman replaced kings and generals on the nation's marble pedestals. At their own countries' ceremonies, King George V and Gen. John J. Pershing each marched humbly on foot.
Alec Reader only became an unknown soldier 10 months after his burial, when renewed fighting in the Somme destroyed the wooden cross that had marked his grave. Decades later, the neglected stone cross memorializing Reader's division nearly toppled into a nearby trench. That he was forgotten once was a tragedy of war. That it happened again is unforgivable.
On November 12, 1921, the day after the United States dedicated its tomb at Arlington, world leaders gathered in Washington for a global disarmament conference. The summit failed dismally, but serves as a reminder. While Neil Hanson is surely right in insisting that we owe those few thousand remaining veterans of the Great War our remembrance, we owe them something more as well.
• Christopher Capozzola teaches American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.