Why Gavin Stamp’s book, published on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, and why now? I’ve owned it for a few years. I think perhaps I was trying to find a way to think about the Great War on its anniversary without going back to the literature or the history, which I think I know quite well; this was a more elliptical approach.
And in truth I knew little of the War Graves Commission, other than that a grief-stricken Rudyard Kipling was its literary adviser; it was a huge and heroic undertaking which I plan to write about a little more.
The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, like the Cenotaph, was built by Sir Edward Lutyens, whom Stamp describes in at least two places as the greatest English architect of any generation, which may come as a disappointment to Wren or Hawksmoor. But he makes his case well, well enough for me to want to visit the Memorial and go and have a better look at the subtleties of the Cenotaph. The Memorial, in particular is built as a series of interlocking arches, the better to make the space for 60,000 names of the British and French missing.
As for the missing, in what was surely the greatest disaster in terms of British military history – so many lives lost for so little gain – Stamp quotes some lines from Sebastian Faulk’s novel Birdsong which are worth repeating here:
“‘These are just the … unfound?” She looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as thought the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes. When she could speak again, she said, “From the whole War?” The man shook his head. “Just these fields.”
Stamp’s account of the battle and its aftermath also makes me want to read Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, which, I suspect, will also be an elliptical approach to the dead.