Remembering the Dead

Remembering the Dead
Tuesday 10 November 2015

Remembering the Dead

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, 7 November 1920. Imperial War Museum.

In November of 1920, Britain entombed its ‘Unknown Warrior’ in Westminster Abbey. In the wake of the First World War, partly in response to popular demand, governments began to organise an official remembrance of the war dead.[1] The demand came particularly from relatives of those who died on the battlefield and were buried in unmarked graves. The sheer number of dead, the need to bury them quickly, and the destructiveness of modern technology in the First World War had led to an enormous number of missing or unidentified bodies. The concern for ordinary soldiers was relatively new. In many of the battles of the 19th century, only officers merited a grave marker. [2] A ‘democratisation of death’ characterised the nationalist mobilisations of modern war.[3] Monuments increasingly listed the dead alphabetically rather than by rank.  The idea of an ‘unknown soldier’ reflected both an unprecedented number of unidentified or missing bodies and the assumption that something was amiss in this anonymity of death, and not just for officers.

Remembrance is always also an act of forgetting. In search of an unknown soldier to represent the nation’s loss, French authorities dug up eight bodies at Verdun. One body they unearthed was Senegalese, and the corpse was returned to the ground.[4] Remembering the dead did not imply equality across the empire. Despite the efforts of Senegalese politicians, there would be no Senegalese unknown soldier. Instead, Dakar hosted a memorial to both the French Empire and the war effort with two soldiers monumentalised – one French and one Senegalese.[5] The Frenchman’s hand rested paternally on the shoulder of the Senegalese. Remembrance was a different phenomenon in the Empires. Indeed, many imperial ‘unknown soldiers’ came later, Australia’s in 1993 and Canada’s in 2000. The story of the unknown Senegalese soldier is a reminder that precisely because the individual was unidentified, nationality, race and gender could not be left uncertain. Some critics liked to suggest that given the difficulties of identifying bodies, the French Unknown Soldier might even be German. A monument to war dead regardless of nationality was unthinkable.

Historians have debated whether the ‘unknown soldiers’ responded to a popular need for mourning or whether it was a state-directed exercise in nationalism. The demand from below undoubtedly existed, but it was most successfully expressed where it did not conflict with national interests. In Britain and France, the first movers in monumentalising unknown soldiers, the First World War could be relatively easily integrated into national mythologies. But what of Alsace and Lorraine, whose soldiers fought on the German side during the war, but whose territories were transferred once more to France after the conflict? Or what of the Italians of the Trentino and Alto-Adige, who fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire (usually on the front against Russia) but whose land became part of Italy in the peace settlement? At least in Alsace Lorraine, memorials eschewed the usual ‘mort pour la patrie’ (dead for the fatherland) and were dedicated simply to the dead of the commune. Their mourning was more private, tucked away in cemeteries rather than the public squares common elsewhere.[6]

A difficult remembrance was the norm. Mourning and loss was always inflected by the political context. Britain and France were the exceptions, victorious and territorially intact or enlarged. In Ireland, the National War Memorial could only be officially opened in the 1990s. Across much of Europe, new nation states elevated aspects of the war experience – Polish volunteers in the Austro-Hungarian Army or the ‘Czechoslovak Legions’ who fought on the Entente side - that could serve a nationalist lineage. In Russia, the experience of the First World War faded behind the advent of the Bolshevik Revolution. The politics of remembrance proved fraught in the interwar period. For all the democratisation in the symbolism of the unknown soldier, officers dominated public remembrance for much of the immediate postwar period. Veterans associations in interwar Europe tended towards pacifism. In the defeated state of Germany, public debate was captured early by an officer class that fulminated about national humiliation and a ‘stab in the back’ even though the majority of veterans did not share their views.

Many of the divisions over remembering the war dead disappeared as the political and historical context changed. The remaining veterans of the First World War died in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In France, twelve remained in 2005. Then President Jacques Chirac suggested the last might be entombed alongside the Unknown Soldier in a state funeral. But Lazare Ponticelli, the sole survivor by 2008, rejected the idea, although he ultimately consented to an official mass. Thus Nicholas Sarkozy celebrated the ‘love of fatherland’ of Ponticelli (born in Italy and not even a French citizen during the First World War) at a televised mass in Les Invalides. Ponticelli’s own recollection of war was of thinking ‘we are all going to die,’ and ‘war is completely stupid.’[7] But such sentiments are usually forgotten in the political ceremony of remembrance.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: ‘Here lies a French soldier dead for the fatherland, 1914-1918.’ (Image:



[1] For further elaboration on these themes, see Ben Mercer, ‘The Memory of Europe’s Age of Catastrophe, 1914-2014,’ in Nicholas Doumanis, ed., Oxford Handbook of Europe 1914-1945 (Oxford, OUP, 2016). Published online:

[2] Thomas Laqueur, ‘Memory and Naming in the Great War,’ in John R. Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) 150-167, 152.

[3] On the ‘democratisation of death’ see Reinhard Koselleck, ‘War Memorials: Identity formations of the Survivors’ The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Samuel Presner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) 285-326.

[4] See Yves La Naour, The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War, trans. Penny Allen (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004) 75.

[5] See Ruth Ginio, ‘African Colonial Soldiers between Memory and Forgetfulness: The Case of Post-Colonial Senegal,’ Outre-Mers 94: 350-351 (2006) 141-155 and Brigitte Reinwald, ‘Recycling the Empire’s Unknown Soldier: Contested Memories of French West African Colonial Combatants’ War Experience,’ in Memory, History and Colonialism: engaging with Pierre Nora in colonial and postcolonial contexts (London: German Historical Institute, 2009) 37-70.

[6] See William Kidd, ‘From the Moselle to the Pyrenees: Commemoration, Cultural Memory and “Debatable Lands,”’ Journal of European Studies 35(1): 114–130.

[7] Douglas Martin, “Lazare Ponticelli, France’s Last Veteran of World War I, Is Dead at 110,” New York Times, 13 March 2008. Accessed November 2, 2015.



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