I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t a cyborg can visit the cemeteries and memorials on the Western Front and not be moved by reflections on what it must have been like to fight there, and how terrible the losses were.
I always thought the saddest sight was the repetition of the words “A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God.” Here he is, someone’s son or brother or husband, and the family doesn’t know it. Those graves seemed to me so tragic.
Then someone in my family died, in 2011. His ashes were scattered in the forest he loved. It was what he wanted, it was fine.
But when the anniversary of his death arrived, and my grief was renewed, it was magnified because he wasn’t … anywhere. My religion teaches that when we die, we leave our bodies behind – that’s why we call them “the remains” – so it isn’t as though having him lying in a cemetery would mean he was still with us. But there isn’t even a stone. He just isn’t anywhere.
No U.S. cemetery of the First World War has even 1,000 unknown soldier graves. We had a fraction of the casualties compared to other armies, and our dead could be buried without expectation that they would be blown up again later by artillery. They were easier to find and then to identify – most of them, anyway. They were buried so far from home, few families ever were able to visit. Maybe it seemed as though their boys were missing, too.
Stand my family’s sorrow against the 73,000 names at Thiepval, or the 11,000 names on the Vimy memorial – I could go on and on. But listing them by the thousands is numbing. It only hurts when you reflect that each name belongs to a family mourning someone who was no longer anywhere at all.