The First World War was a conflict of unprecedented ferocity that unleashed such demons as mechanized warfare and mass death on the twentieth century. After the last shot was fired and the troops marched home, approximately three million soldiers remained unaccounted for. Some bodies were found, but they bore no trace of identification; many more men had been blown to smithereens or had simply vanished in battlefields where as many as a hundred shells had fallen on every square yard.
An unassuming English chaplain first proposed a symbolic burial of one of those unknown soldiers in memory of all the missing dead. The idea was picked up by almost every country that had an army in the war, and each laid a body to rest amid an outpouring of national grief -- in London's Westminster Abbey, Paris's Arc de Triomphe, Rome's Victor Emmanuelle Monument, and, for the United States, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Reviewers have praised Neil Hanson's account of the plight of the sailors in The Confident Hope of a Miracle , a history of the Spanish Armada, his last book. In Unknown Soldiers , he once again offers an unflinching yet compassionate account of the reality of battle on the front lines. He focuses on three soldiers--an American, an Englishman, and a German--and narrates their war experiences through their diaries and letters. Hanson describes how each man endured the nearly unbearable conditions in the trenches and in the air and relates what is known about their deaths: all three died on the battlefields of the Somme, within gunshot sound of one another. He delves into their familial ties, the ideals they expressed in their letters, and he explains how the death of one, the American pilot George Seibold, was instrumental in the creation of the Gold Star Mothers, an organization caring for bereaved mothers, wives, and families that is still active today. Hanson animates and brings to life the combatants who perished without a trace, and shows how the Western world arrived at the now time-honored way of mourning and paying tribute to all those who die in war.