The Searchers: the quest for the lost of the First World War

One of the most tragic consequences of the First World War was the idea and the reality of ‘the missing’. All earlier wars had victims of which no trace was ever found, but the world’s first global industrialised conflict created millions. So shocking were the overall numbers of war casualties that the term ‘the missing’ forever burned itself into individual and collective memories across the world – and it continues to resonate today.

In the decade leading up to the recent 2014-2018 centenary, and afterwards, there has been an explosion of books on every aspect of the Great War, including expert accounts of the missing, their memorial monuments, and individual quests of the famous for their lost loved ones. Hot on the heels of recent excellent books, such as Richard van Emden’s 2019 Missing, comes Robert Sackville-West’s The Searchers, which for the main part takes the now well-trodden path of its predecessors.

The author does not offer new or innovative insights, but retells in elegantly written detail key aspects of different kinds of searching – sometimes for the actually missing (presumed dead) and sometimes for others temporarily so, through administrative errors in the chaos of war. By 1918, there were around half a million British servicemen whose locations were ‘unknown’, and Sackville-West takes us on an insightful journey of discovery.

Particularly engaging is his account of the official ‘searchers’: volunteers who worked for the ‘Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Department’. There were 1,200 of these in Britain alone, and it is a topic deserving a book of its own.

Arguably the most famous searcher was the novelist E M Forster, who spent several war years in Alexandria, Egypt, interviewing the wounded in hospitals for news of their missing comrades.

Another celebrity quest was Rudyard and Carrie Kipling’s search for their son John, who died in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. Their efforts proved fruitless, and John’s grave was only successfully identified in 1992.

The missing are also sought in the afterlife through the intervention of spirit mediums, in whose power Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an avid believer, despite being ridiculed in the press. Spirit photographs showing a dead soldier’s face formed from ‘ectoplasm’ emanating from the presiding medium’s body were as inventively fraudulent as they were entertainingly bonkers (and morally dubious).

Far more serious is the topic of the bereaved searching for their lost loved ones on inter-war pilgrimages to the old battlefields. This section draws on a mass of academic research over the past 30 years – not least the fact that the banning of repatriating any soldier bodies to Britain led to the substitution of missing bodies by objects, souvenirs of sad journeys adorning countless mantelpieces and hallways.

At the same time, professionals were clearing and consolidating the battlefields as bodies kept surfacing. Grave Registration Units and then the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) discovered and relocated tens of thousands of the dead (often a stomach-churning job), eventually creating today’s beautifully manicured cemeteries.

The missing nowadays are most often retrieved by archaeologists and identified by modern scientific methods such as DNA. The author briefly recounts several key archaeological digs along the old Western Front, but focuses on the discovery and 2009 excavation at Fromelles in France of 250 Australian soldiers in a mass grave. Scientific identification was complemented by the 6,200 personal items retrieved along with the bodies, before the remains were reburied in a new military cemetery.

This well-written and engaging book brings together a host of issues concerning the missing, and opens the door to a more detailed and sensitive understanding of human loss in war.

Review by Nicholas J Saunders
The Searchers: the quest for the lost of the First World War, Robert Sackville-West, Bloomsbury, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-1526613134.