The Need for Closure after the Great War,

Richard van Emden,

Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2019.

Hardback (292 pp, £20.00)


Reviewer - Mike O'Brien

The magnitude of the human disaster of the First World War is hard to comprehend. This is emphasised when it is realised that about half of those killed were unable to be identified. The remembrance and commemoration of the dead was a major issue for all the relatives and friends of the missing.

By November 1918 the battlefields of France and Belgium were littered by unrecovered bodies. Dealing with these was a major emotional and political issue. Should all the dead be returned home? Or just the British? Or the identified? How should the random battlefield burials be reorganised? Who should design, build and maintain the cemeteries? Who would own them? Headstones or crosses or Islamic grave markers? Bigger burial symbols for higher ranks? What about Indians or the Chinese Labour Corps? Who would recover the bodies? These and many other issues needed swift resolution.

            Major General Sir Fabian Ware, a former newspaper editor, stepped forward and partnered with several famous architects. He established the principles and set about their application. It was a massive job. Political and public pressure was applied unmercifully. The self-effacing Ware stuck successfully to his guns.

            Van Emden is a recognised expert on the Great War and clearly traces both the anguish and the processes. He weaves in the story of the search for the body and burial of a Royal Air Force pilot shot down in 1918. An Australian involvement in the recovery of his remains and the confusion leading to his unknown burial combine with his distressed family’s search for a solution – ‘closure’. This may have been practical for the English but verged on the impossible for Australians, New Zealanders and many of the other Commonwealth allies.

            This is a well-told story and a most worthwhile book. It is complemented by the Australian Bart Ziino’s, A distant grief : Australians, war graves and the Great War, also available in our library.