By the end of World War One more than 500,000 British servicemen were missing, lost forever on the battlefields of Western Europe. Robert Sackville-West’s book, The Searchers: the Quest for the Lost of the First World War is a heart rending account not only of the nation’s collective grief but also of the attempts of wives, mothers, fathers and brothers to find the resting places of their loved ones. It is a terribly moving, beautifully written book; Sackville-West’s use of the personal letters of so many relatives reinforces the pain, grief and loss felt by those who were left behind, and their desperate need to find a sense of closure.

There is an excellent chapter on the origins of the Cenotaph and the Tomb of Unknown Warrior.

“The importance of these commemorative rituals-to honour the living and the dead-persisted into the 1920s, with pilgrimages lasting a week around Armistice Day, and pilgrims leaving flowers at the foot of the Cenotaph or poppies on the grave of the Unknown Warrior.”

Robert Sackville-West: The Search for a National Shrine in The Searchers

Sackville-West explains how there was in fact a plan to end the annual event in 1923, but this had to be ditched due to public pressure, with further calls to end the service in the 1930s. However, David Railton, the Bishop of Liverpool, who served in the war and had devised the original idea of bringing home the body of an unnamed soldier argued, “If you remove the service of Remembrance Day, you will add another wound. The true mourner can never forget…. these wounded mourners deserve their brief hours of justifiable pride and consolation. There is for them this thought: I am not alone in my grief.” Consequently, Remembrance Day became an established ritual. Other nations copied the British concept, or cult as Sackville-West refers to it, of the Unknown Warrior-an anonymous individual commemorating the collective grief of the nation. In 1921, the Americans and the Italians each brought home one of their war dead, and over the next 100 years, Belgium, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Canada and Australia all followed the British custom, with the latter two countries exhuming their dead soldiers as late as the 1990s.

Sackville-West describes Vera Brittain reading the inscription on Roland Leighton’s grave in the cemetery at Louvencourt and how she plucks a bronze marigold from the ground to keep in her diary.

The United States government adopted a policy of repatriation agreeing to return the body of any dead soldier, which resulted in 60% of families choosing to do so. This was not the case for British families; it was decided that fallen troops would not be returned home and by the end of the war there were 1,220 cemeteries throughout the Western Front in France and Belgium. However, the families of the missing dead were desperate for their loved ones to be commemorated as close to the place where they had been killed. The Menin Gate was the first of the memorials erected for the missing dead from the British Empire and was completed in 1927.

There were also memorials to the missing, outside of Europe, to the regiments of Indian and African troops, who were killed in the war, which often adopted a discriminatory and less respectful approach to the missing. Only the total numbers were recorded of Indian non-commissioned officers and other ranks, no names other than the officers were listed on the grounds that the memorials would not have been seen by the relatives of the ‘rank and file’. The African dead were commemorated with even less respect. 200,000 Africans died in East Africa alone, most of them were buried hastily, with no records kept, their graves allowed to revert to nature. The African and Indian troops soon became the forgotten armies of the First World War.

Perhaps one of the saddest chapters of the book provides details of the pilgrimages undertaken by families to graves, cemeteries and memorials to the missing of the war. One of the details in the book that has still has real poignancy is the way relatives would movingly scatter soil from home on the graves of their sons.

Veterans of the conflict would also return to the sites of battlegrounds where they had both witnessed and participated in slaughter on an industrial scale. One former soldier, John Gibbons, who made the journey 20 years after the end of the war, struggles to make sense of it all as he reflects on the waste of millions of lives and comments sadly: ‘Everything is growing again as if nothing had happened.”

This is one of the most impressive books I have read about the aftermath of the war and the mission undertaken by so many families to find out what happened to their loved ones and to seek out their final resting places.