Mourn not the passing of the unknown soldier

Across the Western Front, the anonymous war dead are reclaiming their names. At Fromelles scientists have begun to exhume the bodies of men cut down by German machineguns in 1916 and buried in mass graves, to try to identify them through DNA tests.

In the Red Cross archives, historians are poring over newly discovered wartime lists of the names of hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers, in the hope that those buried under blank headstones can be identified at last.

The unknown soldier is a dying breed. Today it is all but unthinkable that a soldier could perish in battle and not be formally identified, returned to his or her family and laid to rest. The cellular dogtag that is DNA ensures that soldiers, however they die, cannot fade away entirely.

The defeat of anonymity in war represents a remarkable cultural milestone. For most of history, the common soldier's grave has lain unmarked. In Shakespeare's Henry V the victorious king rattles off the names of four English grandees slain at Agincourt, but notes dismissively that “none else of name” had fallen.

The tsars saw no reason to provide headstones for soldier-serfs killed in battle. There are no battlefield cemeteries for the English Civil War, the Crimean War, the Peninsular War or the Afghan wars. The dead from Waterloo were not only left unburied, but deprived of their front teeth by scavengers to make dentures for the living: “Let there be a battle and there will be no want of teeth,” says one such tooth-hunter in the biography of Astley Cooper, the pioneering 19th-century surgeon.

Only at the start of the 20th century did it become routine to identify individual casualties of war, and mark the graves of ordinary fighting men. Yet the Great War presented the warring parties with a problem, both practical and in terms of PR. High explosive, relentless battles, disorganisation and glutinous mud meant that the war left hundreds of thousands of names without bodies, and bodies, or fractions of bodies, without names. The Thiepval memorial alone carries the names of 72,000 British dead from the Battle of the Somme with no known grave. The French lost 350,000 men who were simply swallowed up by the maw of battle.

To fill in the gaps where the names should have been, Rudyard Kipling created the felicitous euphemistic epitaph: “A soldier of the Great War known unto God.” More than 200,000 Commonwealth war graves are engraved with these words.

Rupert Brooke helped to reinforce the myth that great glory lay in atomised, anonymous death in battle. The corner of the foreign field concealing his “richer dust” has no name or headstone, and is nonetheless “for ever England”.

But it was the tomb of the unknown soldier - elevated by Britain to Unknown Warrior - that sanctified the concept of nameless death. The idea came from an army padre, David Railton, who spotted a wooden cross to “An Unknown British Soldier” near Armentières in 1916, and wondered if a body might be taken back to Britain to symbolise all the unknown dead.

George V was unenthusiastic initially, worried that it might create a “morbid sideshow”, but in 1920, with millions grieving for lost sons, fathers, brothers, husbands and lovers, the plan was revived. Four unidentifiable bodies were dug up from the battlefields of the Somme, Aisne, Arras, and Ypres. General L.J. Wyatt, commander of British troops in France, selected one at random.

The body was encased in a magnificent oak coffin donated by the British Undertakers Association. The Unknown Warrior arrived in Britain to solemn fanfare, and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey beneath six barrels of earth from Flanders fields and a marble slab: “They buried him among the kings Because he Had done good toward God and Toward His house.”

The Times described the ceremony as “the most beautiful, the most touching and the most impressive this island has ever seen”. Mourners could imagine, for a moment, that their own unrecovered dead might be inside that coffin. That was undoubtedly a comfort, but the Unknown Warrior also reflected the dehumanising effect of mass death; here lies Tommy Atkins, Everyman and no one.

The authorities did not reveal the fate of the three soldiers not selected for anonymous immortality. They were unceremoniously tipped into a shell hole alongside the road to Albert. Known unto God. Known unto nobody.

Despite the symbolic power of the Unknown Warrior's tomb, those who had lost people they loved continued to wonder and suffer. Kipling was among them, searching in vain for the body of his son John, lost at the Battle of Loos:

My son was killed while laughing at some jest, I would I knew

What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few

John Kipling still does not rest in peace: his remains were identified in 1992, and his headstone re-engraved, but that identification has since been disputed.

Names matter, for anonymity prolongs uncertainty and pain. The guidelines to the memorial for 9/11 required that the design “recognise each individual who was a victim”.The unknown Vietnam War soldier at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery was identified, after DNA testing, as Air Force Officer Michael J. Blassie, and reburied by his family.

Now the dead from a war on the farthest tip of living memory are regaining their names. That is an important victory. Modern science has banished the nameless dead from warfare. There will be no unknown soldier from Iraq or Afghanistan. One day, even the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey might recover his identity, as may his three nameless companions, buried somewhere on the road to Albert.

The idea of the unknown soldier is dead and buried. We should not mourn its passing.

Ben Macyntire