Inside Story

The faces behind the stone

A visit to Ypres prompts the question: do war memorials hide more than they reveal?

Scott Bennett 9 November 2018 2062 words

“The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of thousands is a statistic”: the Flanders battlefield in October 1917. Australian War Memorial

The people have asked for houses and we have given them stones.
— William Richard Lethaby

Columns of soldiers tramp the mud-smeared Ypres Road. The stamp of their sodden boots upon the cobblestones sounds a drumbeat. They tramp past the gaunt ruins of the medieval Cloth Hall and through the humps of broken masonry that once formed the Menin Gate. The drumbeat fall of their boots continues uninterrupted — every hour, every day and every night for four long years.

A mile beyond the Menin Gate is Hellfire Corner, and a mile further is the abyss. In that sodden wasteland, cannons sound, machine guns stutter, parachute flares fizz, poisonous gas drifts and disembowelled horses shriek. Five thousand men die every month; 5000 are crippled every week. A quarter of a million stout-hearted men dissolve into ghosts, shadows and memories. There is no single yard of ground that does not cost blood and bone. This is the Ypres Salient, the ten-by-six-mile shell-torn expanse of Belgium that the British and German armies bitterly contest throughout the Great War.

A century later, I walk the patterned cobblestones of Ypres Road. Quaint shops that display Belgian chocolates and fine pastries have replaced rubble-lined streets. The tourists who collect inside these premises to admire the ornate window displays and swap cheerful banter have replaced the columns of tramping soldiers. Yet the residue of war remains. As I walk further, the shops abruptly end and are replaced by a colossal arch that straddles the street. Its straight lines and geometrically precise angles cast a mournful shadow across the Ypres-to-Menin road. The inscription on its facade reveals itself: “To the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no known grave.”

Reaching the haunting Menin Gate Memorial, I enter the arch’s belly to shelter from menacing clouds that threaten rain. Tourists wearing long overcoats, with collars upturned, mill at the memorial’s base. Soon the traffic will stop, and buglers will sound the “Last Post.” It is a ritual that has continued uninterrupted every evening and in all weathers since 1929.

Standing among the sodden wreaths and faded flowers, I see the inscriptions etched on its Portland stone walls: panel after panel, floor to ceiling, with the names of 55,000 Indians, Englishmen, Australians, Irishmen, Scots and Canadians. Each name is inscribed with uniform precision: letters evenly spaced in an artless Roman typeface.

I struggle to comprehend how tens of thousands of souls could be lost in the Ypres Salient, just a few miles beyond the brightly lit shops, and how their existence could be distilled down to names on endless lists. And I find it difficult to discern an individual name from those lists. Perhaps that’s the way Sir Reginald Blomfield, the architect of the Menin Gate Memorial, intended it: no individual name should be distinguished from the masses; a visitor’s gaze should never penetrate those lists. Yet I find myself compelled to do just that. To understand what this memorial really symbolises, I must pierce Blomfield’s dehumanising illusion and put a story to a name to draw out warmth, love and grief from the cold stone.

I gaze upon a single panel. Battalions dissolve into individuals: Albert, Allan, Allen, Allen J. — Josiah Allen. I reach out and sweep my hand across Josiah’s name, my fingertips catching on the edges of each letter. I punch Josiah’s name into my iPhone and discover that he was a twenty-seven-year-old grazier from the remote town of Gin Gin in Queensland who enlisted in July 1916. I learn later that Josiah was a clean-living bloke who was a member of the local temperance movement and a devout churchgoer attending the Gin Gin Methodist Church. He was recognised throughout the district as an expert horseman capable of riding the wildest stallion bareback, and considered an expert marksman who could shoot out a fly’s eye at 500 yards.

I ponder what Josiah may have thought in June 1917 as he marched past where I now stand. Did he realise that his battalion would be thrust into the bloody offensive at Messines Ridge? Was he comforted that his brothers, Ned and Ernest, marched alongside him? Within days, a shell burst would kill Josiah; his remains would lie buried forever somewhere on the mired battlefield, and his name would be memorialised on the Menin Gate.

Josiah suffered the ignominy of being lost in the Flanders mud, along with thousands of others. Ironically, in commemoration, he suffers the same fate — lost in a sea of tens of thousands of uniform inscriptions. “Memorials to the Missing are not about people,” reflected Geoff Dyer, the author of The Missing of the Somme, “they are about names: the nameless names.” Yet, with some rudimentary research, I uncovered Josiah’s story. I have penetrated the memorial’s endless lists and grasped a single name. I understand Josiah’s twelve-month journey to Messines Ridge, his aspiration to return to “sunny old” Gin Gin, and his family’s grief when he was listed as missing. What other intimate stories can be drawn out from those lists?

Blomfield’s method of commemorating the British Empire’s missing — the so-called imperial framework — is replicated right across the Great War battlefields. A short distance from Ypres, among ploughed fields, is the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing: the uniform stone-and-flint panels that rim the cemetery list 35,000 missing British and New Zealand soldiers. In northern France, on the Somme, the identity of 74,000 British soldiers is etched on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Across almost 1000 Commonwealth cemeteries that trace the Western Front, 180,000 near-identical headstones simply read “A Soldier of the Great War Known Unto God.”

The story is no different for Australian soldiers. On a quiet hill just outside Villers-Bretonneux is the Australian National Memorial; its panels record 10,738 Australian soldiers missing in action over three years of fighting in that region. The Menin Gate records the 6000 Australian soldiers missing in Belgium. In Turkey, the Lone Pine Memorial records the names of 4900 Australian and New Zealand soldiers missing in the Gallipoli campaign.

Many are aware that 62,000 Australian soldiers died in the Great War. Yet what remains largely unknown is that well over one-third of these soldiers were recorded as missing — their bodies either unrecovered or unidentified. The Great War for Civilisation brutally erased 23,000 of them: dismembered by shellfire, buried without proper identification, shovelled into unmarked graves, or left to rot in no man’s land. They were consigned to a suspended state — no name, no body, no burial, no mourning — entombed in uncertainty.

My experience at the Menin Gate Memorial compelled me to understand and write the story of the missing; but, most importantly, it influenced how I decided to tell the story. In writing The Nameless Names: Recovering the Missing Anzacs, I consciously avoided statistics that overwhelm one’s senses but do not enlighten them. The much-quoted remark, “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of thousands is a statistic,” became my guiding mantra. I stripped back the military jargon that could lock many readers out of these stories. (Don’t panic: I have included 850 footnotes for those so inclined.) Rather, I have focused on conveying the personal experiences of those affected — mothers, fathers, wives, sons, daughters and lovers.

The book tells the story of the missing Australian soldiers through the personal experiences of three Australian families: the Reid family and their sons Mordaunt and Lindsay; the Pflaum family and their sons Tab, Theo and Ray; and the Allen family and their sons Ernest, Ned and Josiah. I start these family stories in peaceful country towns such as Coolgardie, Blumberg and Gin Gin, and then chart their sons’ path to war. I convey the circumstances of their sons’ disappearance and then explore the family’s grief, their endless search for facts, how they commemorated their missing loved ones, and whether later generations of relatives connect with their past.

The Reid, Pflaum and Allen brothers fought on three devastating battlefields of the Great War: Gallipoli, Fromelles and Ypres. Their names are listed on the ageing memorials — the Lone Pine Memorial, the Australian National Memorial and the Menin Gate Memorial — that mark the old battlefields.

Yet, after months of research, I realised there was more to the story. As compelling as I found their personal stories, three questions continually occupied my mind. I realised that to address these questions I had to add a layer that examined the wider landscape of the missing, projecting from and beyond the experiences of the Reid, Pflaum and Allen families to tell a more complete Australian story.

The first question was: why were so many families left without answers about their missing loved one’s fate? Poet laureate John Masefield provided some clues when he observed a battlefield plateau where thousands had died. He recorded that the incessant shelling buried and unburied them, and then buried and unburied them until “no bit of dust was without a man in it.”

A son was missing on the battlefield, but so too was information about him. The flood of enquiries from anguished relatives of the missing overwhelmed the two agencies responsible for providing answers: the Office of Base Records and the Australian Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau. The letters sent out by the Base Record’s overworked clerks always read the same: “No details are available. They will be furnished at first opportunity.” Despite this undertaking, families rarely received the promised details on their son’s fate.

After the war, the Australian government reassured families that “all pains” would be taken to greatly reduce the missing. Exhumation parties were tasked with recovering, identifying and interring bodies in central cemeteries. Yet, at the conclusion of their work, 23,000 Australian soldiers remained unidentified or unrecovered.

Second, what was the emotional toll on relatives of the missing? Janet Fox provided a glimpse into the unique torment they suffered when she wrote that the state of suspense over her missing son ate at her very soul. “How helpless I am,” she lamented. She and other women were denied that very human healing process, described by psychoanalysts as the shift from the initial denial of death to a slow emotional disassociation from the lost person. Being missing was an undefined social state, which precluded access to all the rituals and practices that society had developed to deal with such sadness.

To soothe the anguish of families with missing loved ones, the British Empire boldly embarked on the largest architectural project in its history to commemorate the dead and missing in memorials. Yet this approach left many families bewildered — they wondered whether their loved ones or the deeds of the empire were being honoured. Families responded by finding their own way to deal with their anguish, such as building memorials in their communities, or lovingly maintaining shrines to their beloved in their homes.

And, finally, does a connection exist between current generations and the missing? Relatives of the missing, such as Lesley Bath, the great-niece of Josiah Allen, provide some insight. Lesley, who is connected to her family history, felt compelled to visit the Menin Gate Memorial in the 1990s to honour her great-uncle. She remembers that it was a “tough day” when she read Josiah’s name on the panels.

Yet beyond family connections such as Lesley’s, the missing and their stories are seemingly forgotten. I discovered this when I randomly surveyed twenty Australians unconnected to the missing, asking them if they knew of the Menin Gate Memorial. None did. Yet, after having it explained to them, most felt aghast that its story was unknown to them. By contrast, many of those surveyed condensed the Great War down to stories of heroic Anzacs. It’s a lopsided picture that is evident on bookstore and library shelves that swell with stories of Victoria Cross recipients. As I highlight in The Nameless Names, the Great War’s more prevalent experience was that of the one in fourteen families whose son went missing, rather than the one in 5000 families whose son was awarded a Victoria Cross.

And despite the incalculable investment in the tons of Portland stone, miles of uniform headstones and endless acres of commemorative monuments that should balance out these two contrary perspectives, ordinary soldiers such as Josiah Allen remain missing from our minds. My book’s purpose is to address this by revealing the human faces hidden behind the cold stone. •