Wednesday 27 May 2015


The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier - interred in
Ottawa on 28 May, 2000
Tomorrow is an important date for Canadians - the fifteenth anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Soldier - a Canadian who was killed in France, in the area of Vimy or Arras, in the First Word War.
The original resting place
of Canada's Unknown Soldier

I stumbled on the grave of the unknown soldier quite unexpectedly in May 2009 when I stopped in Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery in Souchez, a short distance from Vimy Ridge. I had planned on visiting the cemetery, one of the largest in the area, but my research had failed me and I did not realize it was the site from where Canada selected the body of an unknown Canadian. 

Later that week I visited Thiepval Memorial, during a stop in the Somme, and it was that memorial that inspired this story, which seems fitting on this anniversary. 

The Missing

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, what famed
First World War writer Siegfried Sassoon called a
"Sepulchre of Crime"  bears the names of 54,900
men who went missing in the Ypres Salient
and have no known grave.

The “Missing” of the war, those with no known grave; the non-stop fighting along much of no-man’s land, the static nature of the lines, and the massive use of artillery made it inevitable that many of the dead would never be found. 

The First World War saw the widespread introduction for the first time of Identity Discs to soldiers of all armies. After some experimentation of their own, the Canadian army generally had adopted the British pattern by 1916, a small round disc made of compressed red or brown asbestos fibre in which there was stamped the soldier’s name, number, regiment and religious denomination.  However it wasn’t until mid 1916 that a second disc was issued, one that would hopefully stay with the body for later identification after the first disc was removed for registration purposes.

Tyne Cot Memorial bears the names of 35,000 soldiers
of the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia
killed after August 17, 1917 who have no known grave.

“often have I picked up the remains of a fine, brave man on a shovel, just a little hap of bones and maggots to be carried to the common burial place. Numerous bodies were found lying submerged in the water in shell holes and mine craters, bodies that seemed quite whole, but which became like huge masses of white, slimy chalk when we handled them. The job had to be done; the identity disc had to be found.  I shuddered as my hands, covered in soft flesh and slime, moved about in search of the disc and I have had to bodies to pieces in order that thy should not be buried unknown.” J. McCauley, IWM 6434.

Even when friends had taken the time to carefully bury, mark and register a death, they knew there would be a good chance that artillery would obliterate any remains. After burying his friend Jimmy Smith, of the Northern Cyclist Battalion remembers “feeling a bit upset, for the grave was only about four feet deep. I knew he probably wouldn’t be there for very long because of the shell fire.”

Understanding casualty figures for the first world war is surprisingly complicated and often conflicting because of the reporting structure, particularly within the British army and its colonies. But it is generally accepted that there were 575,000 killed in action in the British Army, and about 100,000 missing; of course, there were also dead and missing in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Canada suffered 53,000 killed, of which just under 20,000 have no known grave. 

The massive Thiepval Memorial which bears the names
of 73,000 Commonwealth soldiers who have no known
grave - Canada is not represented as its Missing are
remembered on the Vimy Memorial.

“There are so many that will always be classed among the missing that we shall never know what happened to them. There were so many attacks over such a large area that they are scattered everywhere. Such a great many were buried by shells filling in trenches and smashing down parapets that they will not all be found. As I walked along both front and support lines I came across the most terrible sights. There would be arms or legs lying around with no sign of the rest of the bodies, and the blood was in pools and spattered over trenches, [illegible] and in fact everything.” June, 1916

Driving west, down the Albert-Bapaume Road, the turret-like structure of the Thiepval Memorial can be seen in the distance, the high ground of the ridge accentuating its monolithic design. The memorial serves as a constant reference point when driving through the area. Designed by famed British architect Edward Lutyens, who also designed the Cenotaph for the Unknown Warrior, it was unveiled in 1932 and like so many other monuments designed to honour the dead it was steeped in controversy from former soldiers who would rather have seen the money be spent on more worthwhile social causes.

The memorial is a colossal structure, the base of which consists of 16 columns, on the sides of which are the names of the British and Commonwealth soldiers, excluding those of Canada and New Zealand, who were killed in the Somme and have no known grave. There are 73,000 names engraved on the monument - slightly less than are captured on the two memorials around Ypres, the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot.

Representative of the tragedy of the Unknown Soldier, one of the more celebrated but tragic stories of loss, is that of Rudyard Kipling and "his boy" Jack. After his son was turned down for military service because of his particularly poor eyesight the famed writer went to great length, drawing on his influence and connections, to have his son accepted in to the army.  Eventually John Kipling was granted a commission with the Irish Guards and, on his eighteenth birthday, arrived in France. Six weeks later, on September 25th, British and French armies launched a massive attack in the area of Loos that would  continue, in utter futility, for three weeks.  On the second day of the battle Lt. John Kipling was reported as missing.

For the next four years Rudyard Kipling fought a relentless campaign to find his son, petitioning soldiers as they came home from the front, whether they had "seen my boy Jack".

Seventy-five years after the battle of Loos, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reported that they had identified a body, previously reported as unknown, to be that of Lt. John Kipling. But while the grave has been changed to reflect the finding - Lt. John Kipling, Irish Guards, 27 September, 1915, Age 18, it remains the subject of some dispute by those who believe that the research leading to the finding was flawed.  It was not until a year after the War that Rudyard Kipling gave up his  campaign to find his son and joined the International War Graves Commission for whom he penned the phrase seen on so many headstones, always invoking intense emotion: "A soldier of the Great War Known Unto God".

The Children

THESE were our children who died for our lands: they were dear in our sight.
We have only the memory left of their home-treasured sayings and laughter.
The price of our loss shall be paid to our hands, not another’s hereafter.
Neither the Alien nor Priest shall decide on it. That is our right.
But who shall return us the children ?

At the hour the Barbarian chose to disclose his pretences,
And raged against Man, they engaged, on the breasts that they bared for us,
The first felon-stroke of the sword he had long-time prepared for us
Their bodies were all our defense while we wrought our defenses.

They bought us anew with their blood, forbearing to blame us,
Those hours which we had not made good when the judgment o'ercame us.
They believed us and perished for it. Our statecraft, our learning
Delivered them bound to the Pit and alive to the burning
Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honour
Not since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her.

Nor was their agony brief, or once only imposed on them.
The wounded, the war-spent, the sick received no exemption
Being cured they returned and endured and achieved our redemption,
Hopeless themselves of relief, till Death, marvelling, closed on them.

That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled on the wires
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes—to be cindered by fires
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation.

But who shall return us our children ?

Rudyard Kipling, 1917

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