THE MISSING OF THE SOMME
By Geoff Dyer
Vintage. 157 pp. $14.95
Geoff Dyer’s grandfather fought at the battle of the Somme, the 4½-month campaign that began in the summer of 1916 and saw nearly 100,000 soldiers of the British Empire perish for gains of about six miles. Family lore holds that he had been turned away at the recruiting office and told to “come back in a couple of days when he was two years older.” Yet when he finally passed away, at 91, the death certificate revealed the story to be untrue—his grandfather had been 20 when the war began. It turns out that many British families share such tales, and Mr. Dyer sees his discovery as emblematic of the pervasiveness and persistence of wartime mythmaking: “He is everyone’s grandfather,” he writes.
“The Missing of the Somme” is a lyrical meditation on memory and the meaning of World War I. Published in Britain in 1994, Mr. Dyer’s thoughtful and thought-provoking pilgrimage through the war’s bibliography and battlefields might send some readers in search of more formal histories of the war or its effects on the British public, such as John Keegan’s “The First World War” (1999) or Adam Hochschild’s recent “To End All Wars” (2011). But this is a different sort of work, a book not about the war but about books about the war, or as Mr. Dyer puts it, “research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance.”
For both historians and novelists, a major challenge of writing about the Great War lies in shaping a narrative; Mr. Dyer, writing notes rather than a story, evades this. Instead, starting with his own generation and their second- or third-hand memories, he reads backward from memorials to battles. The death toll of the Great War required new commemorative forms. The architect Edwin Lutyens, visiting the battlefields in 1917, described the haphazard memorials created by the soldiers as “a ribbon of isolated graves like a milky way” and initially thought they should be left that way. He instead went on to create many stark, formal memorials, including the vast monument to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, which lends Mr. Dyer’s book its title.
A perceptive critic of photography, the author frequently reproduces and analyzes images that, like memories, have degraded over time. A photograph of the Southwark War Memorial in south London shows the statue of a striding soldier looming solidly overhead while four bystanders have “ghosted” into transparency due to the camera’s long exposure. The symbolic power overwhelms interpretation: Mr. Dyer captions the photograph, simply, “Time.” Similarly, an image of a weeping mother from the Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge is labeled “Grief . . .”
Monuments are one window into how the war passed into memory; literature is another. In several passages of astute critical analysis, Mr. Dyer shows how quickly certain tropes of war literature attained the status of historical truths—and how certain writers became icons. The poet Wilfred Owen was little known before his death (one week before the Armistice), but the short, wasted lives of men like him and fellow war poets Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley and Isaac Rosenberg embody what one of Owen’s poems called the “Futility” of the war. Mr. Dyer also guides the reader through less familiar poetry and fiction—from the French writer Henri Barbusse’s visceral 1916 novel, “Under Fire,” to Timothy Findley’s 1977 novel, “The Wars” (in Mr. Dyer’s view, the most impressive of historical fictions about the war). These wide-ranging readings illuminate how thoroughly memory and history are interwoven with literature.
Grounding these meditations are scenes from a road trip that the author takes to France and Belgium with a couple of friends. Unsure if they’re on “a gloomy holiday or a rowdy pilgrimage,” they drink beer and careen about the bleak landscapes of the former Somme and Ypres battlefields in a muddy rental car they dub “the tank,” at one point narrowly escaping death by collision with a French truck driver. These defensively comic interludes demonstrate Mr. Dyer’s sense of the war’s conflicting interpretations: Was it a tragedy or a bloody farce? From Siegfried Sassoon on, writers have been torn between elegy and satire, and Mr. Dyer balances both in his visits to the cemeteries—first offering examples of the bizarre comments in the visitors’ books, then returning to the same spot to eloquently evoke “the vast capacity for forgiveness revealed by these cemeteries.”
Walking among the endless headstones, Mr. Dyer comes to feel that the war’s commemoration overtook all its other meanings—as if survivors were trying to convince themselves, through art and ritual, that the sacrifice had been worth it. Memorialized even before it was completed, “the war was fought in order to be remembered”—a striking contrast to the present day, when wars are forgotten while they’re still being fought.
—Ms. Scutts is a lecturer in the English department at Columbia University.