The Need for Closure after the Great War

By Richard Van Emden

Pen & Sword, 2019

Whilst researching the men named on my local war memorial I came across a letter from a father asking for any information about his son who had been reported as missing in action in October 1917 and presumed killed. The letter was from 1924, seven years after his son had died. It struck me at the time how difficult it must have been for these families who did not have the certainty of knowing the final resting place of their loved one. This is the theme explored by Richard Van Emden in his latest work.

The backdrop to the book is the story of Francis Mond, a pilot shot down in May 1918. His body was initially recovered but then seemingly inexplicably lost, leaving his family desperately searching for answers. Using a rich vein of Commonwealth War Graves Commission documents and an extensive family archive, Van Emden entwines Mond’s story with a general examination of the missing from the war and the efforts made to locate them.

The books covers a number of areas, including the work of the Graves Registration Units in locating the bodies, the criticisms faced about the decision not to repatriate bodies, the political wranglings around budgets for creating and maintaining the cemeteries, and the early days of battlefield tourism.

Whilst there are a number of histories of the formation of the CWGC, this is not just a rehash of how the Commission came about. Van Emden takes us deeper, looking at how the recovery teams went about body collection and some of the problems they faced, not least when the searching should stop and who should be responsible for dealing with reports of further remains.

Francis Mond’s story is fascinating in itself, and quite probably unique. The search for his body was driven by his tenacious mother Angela Mond. Fortunately for her she had wealth, status, and contacts – something most families did not have, and one wonders how seriously she would have been taken had she not had these at her disposal. Ultimately thousands of parents must have died not knowing if their son’s body still lay out there, undiscovered.

Van Emden has a talent for taking often overlooked or ‘niche’ aspects of the war and bringing them to a mainstream audience. Whilst the formation of the CWGC and construction of the memorials and cemeteries across the former battlefields has been covered by others (for example David Crane’s ‘Empires of the Dead’, 2013), Van Emden’s research really brings the story to life through highlighting the impact the war had on those left behind. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Missing yet, make sure you order it now – you will not be disappointed.

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Missing: The Need for Closure after the Great War