Homer, Housman and Ho Chi Minh

On this day, 23rd August in 1972, the last combat battalion of US troops left Vietnam. A year later, US President Richard Nixon ordered the evacuation of all remaining forces and almost twenty years of Cold War proxy conflict were over. Just two years later, Saigon fell and Vietnam was unified as a Communist state under Ho Chi Minh.

At first glance this might not seem of much relevance to World War One, and in particular to the subject of memorials to the dead and missing. But in Vietnam the US Marine Corps showed a determined commitment to recover the bodies of fallen comrades - often imperilling themselves and sustaining further casualties in the process - that harked back to the ritualised fighting of the Classical era.

When Hector finally faces Achilles towards the end of the Iliad, their combat is preceded by a lengthy exchange about honour and respect for the loser. Or specifically, the loser's body. Earlier, when Hector has killed Patroclus, an almighty battle involving all the Greek heroes ensues in order to secure the body of Achilles' friend and fallen comrade. And the denouement of Homer's epic involves the final release of Hector's body for burial, as his father Priam comes begging, having first 'kissed the hands that killed my son.'

Such respect for the dead certainly wasn't common in medieval warfare. Indifference to fallen comrades probably starts with the Romans (who held life cheap). It certainly continues, in British Military History, through to the Battle of Waterloo (where the dead were heaped in mass graves) through to the national scandal of neglected Boer War graves. As A.E.Housman wrote:

East and west on fields forgotten
Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
None that go return again.

Not until the Great War was a concerted effort made to recover the fallen and remember the lives of everyone who paid the ultimate price. The irony is that the same war - for the first time - so industrialised mass slaughter than many of the missing and killed were never to be found, all traces of their earthly life having been destroyed by shell fire or by mine explosion.

In addition, it had been decided early on in the conflict that there was to be no repatriation of bodies. The fallen were buried where they fell, and 'some corner of a foreign field' became their final resting place.

In contrast, the US Marine Corps in Vietnam went to great lengths to recover the bodies of fallen comrades. As J.E. Lendon says, "bodies had to be recovered, even if - given the American reliance on artillery, bombs, and napalm to clear the ground before the infantry advanced - the process of recovering them frequently mangled them far more than the most fiendish enemy could."

Bodies had to be recovered in the immediate aftermath of World War One. Even when only a fragment could be found - and even when a body or a fragment was beyond identification - a grave was dug and a headstone erected. It's this need, and the drive of the men doing it, that inspires my book, The Glorious Dead.

In it, Jack - a corporal with what would now be called survivor's guilt - remains in Flanders searching the battlefields for the bodies of his comrades. With his unit, the old theatres of war are combed four, five, up to six times. Records are checked. Each find is carefully plotted. And slowly, the Flanders mud gives up its dead. Or at least, as many of the dead as can reasonably be found.

Because of course the Great War battlefields still yield up fresh corpses each year. And, in line with the huge respect now paid as a matter of course for a man's mortal remains, the dead are buried in the war cemeteries with full military honours. The latest - four Canadians whose remains have been uncovered in recent years - are to be buried in CWGC cemeteries this week.

They won't be the last. It is estimated that up to 30 new discoveries are made each year. The missing - some of them - are slowly being found. And their remains are at last being buried with all the respect and dignity owed - to borrow famous words from a later war - by so many, to so few.


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