THE MISSING OF THE SOMME by Geoff Dyer

Book Quote:

“And this book? Like the youthful Christopher Isherwood who wanted to write a novel entitled A WAR MEMORIAL, I wanted to write a book that was not about ‘the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation’. Not a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance…”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew В AUG 15, 2011)

When I first read just the title of this book — The Missing of the Somme — I thought perhaps it was an historical novel about World War I, or possibly a linear history of some of the men who had never come home from the fields of battle. Then, reading the Vintage description of Geoff Dyer’s slim volume, I banished those ideas in favor of curiosity about a work that “weaves a network of myth and memory, photos and film, poetry and sculptures, graveyards, and ceremonies that illuminate our understanding of, and relationship to, the Great War.” Did Dyer ably marry these diverse elements and create a memorable contribution to WWI literature?

Just as Dyer noted above, he wrote an essay of 130 pages. No real chapters, just double-spaced breaks with italicized headings as he transits from one related theme to another. To make his points the author cites numerous quotations from Sigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rudyard Kipling, Isherwood and others. Photos of statues and stone war memorials, including the two massive white pylons of the Vimy Ridge Canadian tribute to 11,285 native sons who were counted as “missing,” scatter the text. Dyer also compares a desolate painting by Caspar David Friedrich with a photograph of a bombed wasteland; in each one man stands as if he were the last human being on earth.

The British author links himself in with his forebears…in particular his grandfather who enlisted in 1914 and served as a driver of horse-drawn vehicles on the Somme but who fortunately lived to the age of 91 instead of falling and never again rising from the blood-soaked earth. Dyer proposes that his grandfather’s contemporaries embraced an ideal that made “a virtue of calamity” and dressed up “incompetence as heroism,” as exemplified earlier by the failed Scott expedition to the South Pole and then by the unbelievable loss of life in the trenches of the war. Of course, this blind zeal to sacrifice millions of their people to a stalemate war wasn’t only Britain’s fault. All the participant European nations were just as guilty and subjected their own young men to suffering unspeakable horrors and mass extermination. Once the armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, those living sought a way to remember, but not remember. “Then as now the official idiom of Remembrance stressed not so much victory or patriotic triumph as Sacrifice. Sacrifice may have been a euphemism for slaughter but, either way, the significance of victory was overwhelmed by the human cost of achieving it.”

So, Europe set about building vast cemeteries for those who could be identified and for those who were “missing” or unidentifiable. Dyer and three companions visited the Western Front/Somme and he expressed his thoughts about them. For instance, although this essay is not focused on the German experience during WWI, Dyer saw the German cemetery at Langemark where 25,000 men lie and observed: “There is no colour here, no flowers, nothing transcendent. The dead as individuals hardly matter; only as elements of the nation. There are no individual inscriptions, no rhetoric. Only the unadorned facts of mortality — and even these are reduced to a bare, bleak minimum. This is the meaning and consequence of defeat.”

Dyer’s group also paid respects at the French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette where 45,000 named and unnamed are honored. Pressing onward to three “tiny, beautifully located cemeteries at Redan Ridge,” they then viewed the aforementioned Vimy Ridge where the Canadian missing Great War soldiers’ names are all engraved. The allies, the victors, made a conscious decision to record for posterity the names of all the confirmed dead and the missing.

This pilgrimage of Dyer’s actually took place in the early 1990′s (this Vintage edition is a reprint; the first edition was copyrighted in 1994) and was not the only one he embarked upon. He visited many memorial sites, including Thiepval where there were names of his own family on the markers. About that place he wrote, “For many men who survived, the Battle of the Somme (which, in memory, represents the core experience and expression of the Great War) put an end to the consoling power of religion….In some ways, then, the Thiepval Memorial is a memorial if not to the death, then certainly to the superfluousness of God.” The carnage, the disposability of humanity shattered many and crushed their hope and faith. Belief in God unquestionably decreased in the Western World the Twentieth Century, due to various factors including the self-destructive wars. Human beings tend to ask why an omnipotent Being would allow such wholesale death, not remembering that wars have a human cause.

“For the first time in history the Great War resulted in a sense of the utter waste and futility of war” insists Dyer. This statement is perhaps too absolute because surely earlier wars must have instilled similar feelings in those who suffered in them. However, the sheer scale of this war did set it apart from earlier conflicts. Unfortunately, even with the determined observance of Armistice Day (with two minutes absolute silence and a complete stop of movement in the U.K.) and the design and building of myriad memorials to remind the coming generations that the true costs of war are unbearable, World War II began just two decades later. The war that was supposed to end all wars did nothing of the kind, perhaps because new generations, even if born into a world of remembrance, can’t truly grasp suffering they have not endured.

Dyer’s impressions of the sites are always vital and full of insights, but the somber travelogue represents a relatively small percentage of the essay. The author’s ruminations are more broad-based. His fine, point-laden prose touches on so many aspects of memorializing the Great War. He teaches history, sociology, philosophy, and art appreciation, among other things. But mostly, he reminds himself and his readers that no matter what human beings do after a devastating war, the real lesson learned should be: don’t do it (go to war) because the losses outweigh the gains. Yet, human beings are not likely to take heed, and so there will be more military cemeteries with interred soldiers who gave their lives for some cause or demand.

And perhaps because these soldiers died prematurely, unfairly, violently, it is best to do what Dyer wrote about a register of graves and its elusive truths of the war dead: “I let them stand for themselves, their mystery and power undisturbed.” Among those graves he wrote he’d never felt “so peaceful” and wondered “if there is not some compensatory quality in nature, some equilibrium…which means that where terrible violence has taken place the earth will sometimes generate an equal and opposite sense of peace.”

The Missing of the Somme tenders a unique and affecting meditation on war and its remembrance. I recommend this essay highly.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 12 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Original edition (August 9, 2011)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia on Geoff Dyer
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Bibliography:

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August 15, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· One Comment
Tags: , ,  В· Posted in: Facing History, World Lit

One Response

  1. Roger Brunyate - August 23, 2011

    This is the first book I have bought solely upon reading a review on Mostly Fiction; you did a fine job in persuading me! I read it as soon as it arrived, and wrote my own rather long review on Amazon. I too have family connections to the Great War (father, believe it or not), and have long been fascinated by its literary legacy. I found the book every bit as interesting as you did, but was frustrated by its messy structure, the brevity of most of the quotations, the pictures NOT shown. But I zeroed in on almost exactly the same moments of solemn magnificence, which are really very impressive indeed. Roger.

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