Review of Richard van Emden’s “Missing”

Missing: the need for closure after the Great War
by Richard van Emden
published by Pen & Sword Military in 2019
hardback ISBN 978 1 52676 096 8
pages 272 plus sources and acknowledgements, indexed, illustrated
cover price £20
reviewed by Chris Baker

Confession: I know the author and for reasons best known to himself he has included me in the acknowledgements. I cannot remember what I may have done to help!

Readers will, I am sure, know Richard van Emden as a prolific and very highly regarded author of works that centre upon the lives of soldiers. He is amongst that small cohort of historians whose works sell in such numbers that they appear almost as a matter of course in the best seller lists. Richard is also frequently seen on television as a commentator and adviser on historical documentaries.

“Missing” is another terrific piece of his work that deserves wide readership, for it is not only as well researched and written as we might expect but it covers a complex, difficult and little understood topic. It is at once thought-provoking, harrowing and challenging.

The enormous loss of life during the Great War was a human catastrophe,but surely its greatest tragedy is that for so many of those that died they do not even have the dignity of a known grave. Blown to pieces; buried and their grave later destroyed; later found but could not be identified; or never found at all. I can hardly bring myself to imagine what it must have been like to learn of the death of a father, husband or son – or worse, that it was only known that they were missing and no news ever came – only for the pain to extend over the years of not knowing. A lifetime of not knowing. I have at least two such cases in my close family: I have inherited the last letter ever written by one of them; a simple exchange of greetings and hoping for news from home. He is one of the 54,000 listed at the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, for he was killed on 25 September 1915 and nothing more was ever heard of him and he had never been found or identified.

Van Emden’s “Missing” centres on the tale of the death of two airmen. One, Francis Mond, came from a very wealthy and well known family. His mother soon set about locating what had happened to the two and where they had been buried. Travelling to France and badgering the authorities, she tracked down the final journey of the bodies to an extraordinarily detailed degree, only in the end to be unable to locate them. Much later, their graves finally came to light: it had been a matter of administrative confusion. Perhaps the key learning point from this tale is that if even such an influential, connected lady could not get to the bottom of things, what possible hope was there for the many ordinary families from the industrial towns and remote rural areas of home? The parents of my great uncle never got to France in their lifetime, let alone being able to set off on a grave-finding mission during the war and the years that followed. That was surely true of the vast majority.

The airmen’s tale is fascinating enough, but it is from that base that the author develops the unfolding history of how the army, War Office and ultimately the Imperial, later Commonwealth, War Graves Commission dealt with the huge numbers of dead; their identification; their recovery and burial; their documentation and their commemoration. That we can today find details of a soldier who lost his life within a few seconds of online research; visit immaculately kept and inspirational cemeteries; gasp and still mourn at the “intolerably nameless names” listed on the huge memorials to the missing is their lasting legacy. This is a story that must be known and “Missing” could scarcely be bettered for anyone wishing to know more. It is thoughtful, sincere and well presented and I highly recommend it.

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A soldier’s life