As the centenary of the First World War nears, farmers still uncover skeletons in the unhealed fields of Europe. In their last act, the restless dead themselves compel remembrance of the cataclysm, more than any ceremony to come.
Libraries of books have been written about the horror that left a "crippled, broken world," in the words of Winston Churchill. The bestsellers include Paul Fussell's eloquent "The Great War and Modern Memory" and Barbara Tuchman's history "The Guns of August."
You could argue that all the essential stories already have been told. But they never will be. The First World War always will demand more. Two current books, each thoughtful and moving, enrich understanding and underscore the need to reflect on the twilight-of-empire slaughterhouse that killed almost 20 million soldiers and civilians.
Adam Hochschild's "To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28) examines the struggle, the resistance and the moral challenge in Britain. It's an absorbing, well-reseached account about anti-war critics and what they endured under a government devoted to expanding propaganda and punishing dissenters.
But Hochschild doesn't quite convince you that the entire nation was deeply divided. The pull to war was strong and widespread, turning battles of conscience into sideshows, overshadowing any reasoned argument made by the opponents, from logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell to labor leader Keir Hardie.
More important, Hochschild describes in heartbreaking detail the life and death, the bravery and suffering, of the soldier fighting for an elusive, unclear cause; and depicts the mindset of military commanders dutifully demanding another charge from the trenches. In a book rife with ironies as bitter as myrrh, he drops in that Britain contacted neutral Switzerland to arrange supply trading with Germany.
"Of every 20 British men between 18 and 32 when the war broke out, three were dead and six wounded when it ended," Hochschild writes. The strategy reached the point where Field Marshal Douglas Haig thought the number of British casualties in the war of attrition wasn't high enough. Haig, however, wouldn't visit the casualty stations. They made him "physically ill."
Hochschild's point of view is very clear. He asks, "If we were allowed to magically roll back history to the start of the 20th century and undo one -- and only one -- event, is there any doubt that it would be the war that broke out in 1914?"
He writes that the war "forever shattered the self-assured, sunlit Europe of hussars and dragoons in plumed helmets and emperors waving from open, horse-drawn carriages. As the poet and soldier Edmund Blunden put it in describing that deadly first day of the Battle of the Somme, neither side 'had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won.' "
On the Somme front, troops commanded by the British suffered nearly 500,000 casualties, more than 125,000 dead; the French, 200,000 dead and wounded. "The Allies had gained roughly seven square miles of ground."
"The Missing of the Somme" (Vintage, $14.95 paper) by Geoff Dyer takes its title from the memorial in Thievpal, France, an immense monument on which are carved the names of the dead from the 1916 battle of the Somme with no known graves. There are 72,184 names.
Dyer's pensive, personal, affectionate, elegiac book, previously published in Britain, ponders commemoration and representation, the need to remember and to memorialize. His clear-eyed, poignant observation begins as a road trip through the landscape of memory as well as battlefield and cemetery.
He examines sculptures and photos, poems and headstones, how an image in sepia contains present and future. Dyer writes that "photographs of men queuing up to enlist seem wounded by the experience that is still to come: they are tinted by the trenches, by Flanders mud. The recruits of 1914 have the look of ghosts . . . they are already dead."
Along the Western Front, parts "like the area of the Somme, had been so completely devastated that the French government contemplated making them into national forests."
The Thievpal memorial itself doesn't soar. It just stops, "stubborn, stoical. Like the deadlocked armies of the war, it stands its ground." Dyer sees Thievpal as "not simply a site of commemoration but of prophecy . . . a memorial to the future, to what the century has in store for those who were left." Yet, in the cemeteries flowers bloom and butterflies color the sky, "I know also that what I am seeing are the souls of the nameless dead who lie here, fluttering through the perfect air."
Rest in peace.