Families were left without knowing where their loved ones lay beneath the battlefields of World War I
THE SEARCHERS: THE SEARCH FOR THE LOST WORLD WAR’S
by Robert Sackville-West (Bloomsbury £25,368pp)
His mother remembered the young lieutenant standing tall and straight in the doorway, neatly dressed in his Irish Guards uniform. He had just turned 17 – his 18th birthday was in two days – but duty called, so he proudly went to the Western Front in France in September 1915.
‘Send my love to Daddo,’ John Kipling shouted as he left the family home in Sussex.
‘Daddo’ — Rudyard Kipling, one of Britain’s foremost men of letters, poet, novelist, holder of the Nobel Prize in Literature — did not release his only son because he was already in northern France, a journalist who sent messages back.
Six weeks later, John was dead. He had just written a letter home telling his parents that the attack he would participate in would end the war. (It didn’t.)
Robert Sackville-West has written a deeply moving book about the search for those soldiers who went missing and were never found (file image)
He had signed off, “Well, see you then, darlings, love John.” That was the last they ever heard from him.
On the third day of the Battle of Loos, he led his platoon across open ground as machine guns opened up from the German line. No one knew for sure how he died. His body could not be found. Officially he was not dead but ‘missing’.
For “Rud” and Carrie Kipling, it was a special kind of torture—against hope, hoping that John was alive, maybe a prisoner, or in a remote hospital. It’s never really over. There was no grave for them to visit, no focal point for their grief, no closure.
The trauma left Rud a broken man, dried up and drained, his strength gone; he stopped writing novels and devoted his talents to the War Graves Commission and its mission to find and honor the missing.
It was he who chose the biblical words that became the national language of remembrance: “Their name lives forever.” And for the tombstones of graves whose occupants were unidentified, the simple ‘Known to God’.
The Kiplings’ story is the core, heartbreak, you might say, of Robert Sackville-West’s deeply moving book about the search for those soldiers who went missing and were never found.
There were 500,000 families in the same position as Rud and Carrie, sad but drifting.
Of the half a million who died in this way – nearly half of all the war casualties of the British Empire – about 180,000 were buried as unknown British soldiers. A larger number, however, like John Kipling, had simply disappeared, blown to pieces or drowned in the mud of no man’s land.
Influential men like Rudyard Kipling were able to use their high-level contacts in the military to find out what had happened to a lost loved one. In the photo: Lieutenant John Kipling
Desperate for information, influential men like Rudyard Kipling could use their high-level contacts in the military to try and figure out what had happened to a lost loved one. He even had leaflets printed in German asking about the whereabouts of his son, who had been dropped behind enemy lines by the Royal Flying Corps.
Others, like the distraught but determined Lady Violet Cecil, whose 18-year-old son George was last seen in a ditch during the 1914 retreat from Bergen, traveled to the battlefield while the war was still raging to find her boy. .
George’s remains were eventually discovered in a mass grave of 94 British soldiers, their faces and features shattered beyond recognition. George was identified by his initials on his vest and by the exceptional size of his feet. Three buttons from his tunic were sent to his mother.
For most mothers there was no comfort. Whenever trainloads of wounded men came home, there would be rows of women holding up pictures and begging: Have you seen my son, husband, brother?
Documenting all these grim tales with compassion, Sackville-West writes of family members “tormented by knowing so little about their loved one’s final moments.” How were they killed? Had they suffered?’
There were 500,000 families in the same position as Rud and Carrie, sad but drifting. Pictured: The graves of three unknown soldiers
He rightly commends the Graves Registration Commission and its successor, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, for recognizing this desperate desire to know, for recognizing that each of the dead was an individual and that family members needed reassurance that the graves were being cared for and cared for.
Photos of headstones were taken and sent to those who couldn’t get there in person—”comfort of death at a distance,” as Sackville-West poignantly puts it.
But thousands reached the now-silent battlefields and paid their respects at a grave. “I came all the way from home for this,” said an old woman in a black cap at her son’s grave. “Now I can die in peace.” She had tears in her eyes as she spoke, and in mine as I read her story.
The persistence of relatives was astonishing.
Lieutenant Eric Hayter died, shot in the head, in March 1918, and his father was told there was no trace of his body. A year later, Hayter senior received a letter from a German soldier that included a map showing where Eric had been buried by the Germans. A search followed, which was in vain. But Hayter continued to visit the battlefield in France, excavating land owned by a local farmer where he believed Eric had fallen.
THE SEARCHERS: THE Quest FOR THE LOST WORLD WAR FIRST WAR by Robert Sackville-West (Bloomsbury £25,368 pp)
He then tried to buy the land to erect a memorial, but the farmer said no. So in 1924 – more than six years after his son’s death – he bought a nearby lot for a nominal fee from a sympathetic local countess and was digging the foundations there when, amazingly, 3 feet down, he found a body encountered.
Regimental buttons, rank insignia and five gold teeth confirmed who it was. Father and son were reunited.
The Kiplings had no such reunion. John’s body was eventually found, but only after 70 years, long after his father’s death in 1936.
A diligent Commonwealth War Graves Commission investigator spotted an entry in the register of an unknown soldier unearthed in no man’s land near Loos. The body had been reburied as ‘an unknown lieutenant of the Irish Guards’. The coincidence was too great. It checked out.
John Kipling’s name could now be taken from the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. He was found.
If Rudyard had been alive, he might have listened to the last words of perhaps his most famous poem, If.
Yours is the earth and all that is on it,
And – what’s more – you will be a Man, my son!’