The War to End All Wars didn’t. At least in the United States, the vast majority of those alive today probably view World War I as the chapter in their history textbook before the Depression and World War II. And the death earlier this year of the last surviving combat veteran of the Great War reinforces that people with firsthand memories of the conflict recollection of it grow fewer each day. Yet British author Geoff Dyer suggests that even while it was being fought, “the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered.”
First published in Britain in 1994, Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme is making its first appearance in a U.S. edition. A slim (176 pages), somewhat quirky work, Dyer considers World War I through the poetry, literature, biographies, and photography of the time, along with a bit of travelogue of monuments and cemeteries. It is as far from a history of the war as one might get. To the contrary, Dyer says his goal was not even to write about the war itself but, rather, its impact on his generation. (He was born in 1958.) Nor was this to be a novel. Instead, he viewed the project as “an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance…”
A meditation on remembrance is the best way to describe the work. The various literary and artistic works Dyer discusses deal with how the war would be and is remembered. In fact, remembrance started early, according to Dyer. He points to perhaps the best known poem by Laurence Binyon, “For the Fallen,” which would come to adorn many war memorials. It was published in September 1914, about a month after the first British troops went to France and three weeks after the first British soldier died in the conflict. That means, Dyer says with just a hint of exaggeration, perhaps the leading remembrance of those killed in the war was written “before the fallen actually fell. ‘For the Fallen’, in other words, is a work not of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining.”
Remembrance arose to the point that 30,000 war memorials were erected in France between 1920 and 1925. Yet even memorials feel the toll of time. And the fact time also affects remembrance itself is seen in another example. For decades, November 11 was Remembrance Day in the U.K. (Armistice Day in the U.S.). People would cease activity for two minutes of silence at 11 a.m., the time the Armistice was signed. Although that may still occur, Britain now has Remembrance Sunday, held the second Sunday of November to commemorate those who served in both World Wars. (Here in the U.S., Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1958 and 10 years later it became a movable Monday holiday.)
Dyer’s interest in the memory of World War I stems in part from the fact his grandfather fought in the Battle of the Somme, which still holds the calamitous distinction of seeing the most British casualties ever in one day. Undoubtedly, ensuing generations were impacted by World War I. The numbers are almost stunning. According to Dyer, there were 918 cemeteries built on the Western Front with more than 750,000 graves, approximately a quarter of which contain unidentified remains. He also notes that it would take three and a half days if the dead of the British Empire marched past the war memorial where the Remembrance Sunday service is held.
It is difficult perhaps for Americans to grasp the extent of the generational impact for Britain, France and other European countries. After all, the U.S. suffered 10 percent of the military deaths the British Empire did and even fewer compared to France and Germany. This alone means it is unlikely The Missing of the Somme will attract much attention in the U.S. That does not, however, change the fact it is a unique, albeit idiosyncratic, reflection on war.
The phrase “horror of war” has become so automatic a conjunction that it conveys none of the horror it is meant to express.
Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme