Friday, January 30, 2015

Known unto God

Frederick Wm Darvell, missing, presumed killed
One of the tragedies of The Great War are the men who were literally "lost," those who were reported missing.  Over 70,000 British and Commonwealth men were never found after the battle of the Somme, and nearly 55,000 were missing in action after the battles in the Ypres Salient.   Just outside the city of Verdun, the Douaumont Ossuary contains the bones of over 130,000 French and German men who were never identified.  

Men were lost in collapsed tunnels that exploded during mining operations and buried in trenches after heavy artillery fire; others drowned and disappeared in the deep mud of No Man's Land; still others received injuries that were so severe that they couldn't be identified, men who were obliterated by the weapons of modern warfare. 

Anna Gordon Keown's poem "Reported Missing" gives voice to the anguish of not knowing, of not being able to mourn. 

Reported Missing 

My thought shall never be that you are dead:
Who laughed so lately in this quiet place.
The dear and deep-eyed humour of that face
Held something ever living, in Death’s stead.

Scornful I hear the flat things they have said

And all their piteous platitudes of pain.
I laugh! I laugh! – For you will come again –
This heart would never beat if you were dead.
The world’s adrowse in twilight hushfulness,
There’s purple lilac in your little room,
And somewhere out beyond the evening gloom
Small boys are culling summer watercress.
Of these familiar things I have no dread
Being so very sure you are not dead.
                  --Anna Gordon Keown

The poem is framed in denial:  both the first and the last lines refuse to accept that this man "Who laughed so lately" can be dead. 

His remembered laughter is echoed by her present laughter in line 8, repeated twice, as if to convince not only listeners, but the speaker of the poem herself that there is something left in the world to laugh about. 

The beat of her heart, the flowers gathered for his room, the abundance of the rapidly growing summer watercress are held up as evidence of the vitality that surrounds her.  These are set against the "flat things" and "piteous platitudes of pain" that call her to confront a horrible juxtaposition:  familiar things become dreadful when they continue on, as if in blithe indifference to shattering loss and death. 

She cannot allow herself to mourn:  her memory and hope keep him alive, and so instead, the speaker of the poem lives "adrowse in twilight hushfulness," suspended, only half-awake, in the gloom between day and night. 

One-hundred years later, the missing of the Great War are still being found by farmers clearing land and ploughing fields, by construction crews laying roads and digging foundations.  It's sobering to think how long their loved ones endured suspended lives, waiting for closure that failed to come within their lifetimes.  


  1. Hey Connie.

    Always interesting. I used to work at Napier Uni in Edinburgh where there is a permanent war poets exhibition. If you get to Edinburgh its worth a look

    If you want a good story based during WWI, Robert Goddard's Ways of the World is worth a look

    Keep them coming.



  2. Thanks, Richie. Napier?? Small world! I'm back in the US at my home university, and we are hosting a visiting scholar from Napier, Alistair McCleery. Do you know him?

    I would LOVE to visit Napier and see Craiglockhart Hospital where Owen and Sassoon were treated for shell shock, and where they supported one another in writing poetry. I NEED TO GET BACK TO THE UK!

    Thanks, too, for the book recommendation -- I've added it to my Amazon Wish List. If you like mysteries, you might enjoy Robert Ryan's "Dead Man's Land" -- a mystery set in the trenches outside Ypres, where men are being mysteriously murdered, and an elderly Doctor Watson is right in the thick of things. :)

  3. Only very recently have the remains of 19 soldiers, 17 of them presumed British and 2 German, been discovered during construction works to the NE of Ypres.
    Here, in our beloved cum godforsaken Flanders, the remains of war are continually being found at hardly 1 meter below the surface of the ground.
    The calm and the placidity of the Salient are quite deceiving; the land always serves to remind us...

  4. I've read of the discovery, Chris, but cannot imagine what it must be like to live in a land so saturated with the dead.

  5. If one goes by the number of missing soldiers (with no known grave) whose names are engraved on the slabs of the Menin Gate (Ypres), the total number would indeed be around 55,000.

    However, as there was not enough space on the inside and outside walls of the Gate, the IWGC (later CWGC) decided to have another 35,000 names engraved in the apse of Tyne Cot Cemetery (Passchendaele). The names belong to soldiers who fell during the War after 15th August 1917.

    Moreover, another 11,000 unknown soldiers have had their names engraved in the circular military Memorial of Ploegsteert (known by the BEF soldiers as Plug Street).

    In all this would add up to a staggering 100,000 soldiers "known unto God".



  6. Staggering indeed. 100,000 loved ones waiting for confirmation, lives suspended. Thanks, Chris.

    1. Did I ever mention the staggering number of war victims fallen in our region since the run-up to Third Ypres (31st July 1917) and the end of it (10th Nov. 1917, with the capture of Passchendaele Ridge)? It added up to a mind-boggling 450,000 dead, all sides included. S
      mall wonder we here do not think the Centenary should end the labour of love of remembering.



    2. Chris, thanks again for your insightful comments -- the numbers are mind-boggling, and I couldn't agree more with your point that the end of the Centenary shouldn't end the "labour of love of remembering."

  7. The lost include my Great Uncle Hubert Levingston whose name is on the Menin Gate - my Grandfather went to see his then newly inscribed name in 1928. At the opening ceremony F.M Plumer said "He is not lost : He is here". I really feel that whenever I visit the Menin Gate - most recently 9 months ago with the King of the Belgians, Prince William and Theresa May. These words are now true for my family so these great memorials to the missing have delivered on their intentions. I don't think of his physical remains out on the Salient somewhere but of his name recorded in perpetuity with his pals names proudly on the side of the Menin Gate where Kings and dignitaries come regularly to honour their sacrifice - and numerous family members over the years as well.

  8. "He is not lost -- he is here." How very powerful. Thank you for your poignant comment and for sharing your family's story, Ian.