The Quick and the Dead: Families and Children of The Great War


Richard Van Emden, First World War Historian and BBC Documentary Maker

19 October 2014


Richard van Emden began with an anecdote which was typical of the enormous sense of frustration and loss experienced by thousands of wives and parents during the Great War. We had to imagine a young woman, Mrs Fanny Dorrington, searching for her missing husband in February 1916. In fact he had been killed on the Front Line, and his body buried. In May 1916, her husband’s possessions were returned to her. She had relied entirely on information given to her by the Army. Unfortunately, they let her down. It was one of a large number of administrative errors, inevitable in the circumstances of war.

At the beginning of what became the Great War, the British Army consisted of 250,000 men. Within four and a half months, it had swollen to 13 million. On 3 September 1914, more men enlisted, in that single day, than in a whole peacetime year. On average, 2000 men a day were killed or wounded. Half of the dead were never found. Some were buried, others simply disappeared. On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, 20,000 British men were killed and 40,000 wounded. A typical story is that of Lieutenant White, who went missing. There were five different verbal accounts of this. One man said that he had been shot after he had passed the first line. Another witness said the Lt. White had been mortally wounded before he left the trench. A third said that he had been killed at the second line. Another said that Lt. White had met his death well into No Man’s Land, while a fifth asserted that he had been shot close to the trenches. The family never knew the truth. Another example was that of Hazel and Angus MacNaghten. Angus was in the Scots Third Battalion of the Black Watch. Hazel pursued his disappearance vigorously, without success, well into the war. It turned out that he had been killed very early on in September 1914, but because of the confusion, the information never reached her.

A number of individuals surfaced from neutral countries, claiming to be able to track down ‘the missing’. The appeal to ordinary civilians and family members of these people is obvious enough, but they invariably turned out to be fraudsters. The best-known figure is Edward Page Gaston, from Illinois, ‘the man with the moustache’. The British Government backed his work as a searcher for missing soldiers, and he did indeed organise a comprehensive searching service. But no evidence exists to show that he ever tracked down a single soldier. Families fell victim to Gaston’s wiles. One woman sent £2200 (a very large sum in 1915) for a search which never took place. Gaston even met Lord Kitchener, though the Government eventually placed advertisements in the British press warning people not to deal with (unnamed) private firms or individuals offering to search for the missing. Gaston sued these newspapers; the case came to court, and was postponed for lack of evidence. There was a promise to reconvene the case after the war, but this never happened. Gaston died in the USA in 1955, aged 87.

For the first nine months of the war, no restriction was placed on the private removal of bodies from the Western Front, but the rules were tightened up in 1915. The fact that bodies were not brought back to Britain created great distress among families at home. Hundreds wrote to the Imperial War Graves Commission to complain, but the reply was firm, based on the ruling that the remains of the sons and husbands were not family property. The issue was complicated, but boiled down to several related factors, one of them being the high cost of returning corpses. It was argued that half the missing men had no known grave, so it was thought to be unfair for those with graves to have bodies returned home. Not all corpses were fully formed (always a delicate question) and the ownership of the body was a matter of dispute. Did it belong to the wife, or to the parents? However, if a man was gravely wounded, but was expected to live for, say, another week, his parents were permitted to go over to the Front to visit him.

Soldiers on a duckboard on the field of Passchendaele

In folk-memory of the Great War, the telegram boy plays a dark role. In fact, relatively few people received news about soldiers’ deaths by telegram; this mode was for officers only. Letters were sent to relatives of Other Ranks. The disruption to family life of these deaths was profound. Clara Whitefield was born in 1897, and lived on until 2013. Her father had died of his wounds, and she recalled that her mother had ‘walked up and down outside the house like a madwoman’. Clara had to do all the housework, and more and more children were withheld from school to look after siblings. In old age, Clara said: ‘I don’t miss school, because I knew that what I was doing was right. But I was like a slave. I got old hands; ten years old, and old (cracked) hands.’ She recalled her aching bones, and the muscular pains in her shoulders.

In another case, Donald Overall, whose father was killed in the war, took over as ‘Man of the House’, aged only five. He had a two-year-old brother, and crossed the busy Old Kent Road unprotected, aged only six. On one occasion, a policeman covered the boy with a dustbin lid during an imminent air raid. In another example, from the jute mills of Dundee, young girls worked the looms from six in the morning until six at night, five days a week, plus Saturday mornings. They found the work suffocating, and longed for fresh air. In very many cases, there would have been long-term health damage. Employers usually found ways of getting round the rules concerning the employment of boys. One boy working in a Dundee jute mill was given the name of a soldier who had died in battle. Inspectors would carry out checks at workplaces, sending any children they found back to school. However, once the inspectors had gone, as often as not, the children would return to work.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing on the Somme – designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens

Three weeks after the Armistice on 11 November 1918, it was announced by the War Graves Commission that no bodies would be brought back from the Western Front. Of course there was fury across Britain among wives and parents. Many wrote (to no avail) ‘I protest most emphatically against that decision’, saying ‘… the country took him, and the country should take him back’. A Colonel Duram was wounded in a greenhouse accident. His parents saw him before his death. However, after his death, they wanted his body repatriated, but this was refused. Some would not accept that their sons’ bodies remained overseas. Frank Bacon, the brother of Herbert Bacon, was killed in France, and Herbert actually went over to try to dig up Frank’s corpse himself. In another case, Major-General MacLeod-Adams, who died opposite General Grierson in August 1914, was brought back for burial to the Necropolis in Glasgow.

On Thursday 11 November 1920, the Cenotaph in Whitehall was unveiled, and the funeral of the Unknown Warrior (buried in Westminster Abbey) took place. The symbolic burial of an anonymous soldier was a key moment in the national grieving process. For many, The Unknown Warrior became their son, father, uncle or cousin. An anonymous woman wrote 3000 words on 11 November 1920, personalising the Unknown Warrior as her own son. Within a week, one and a quarter million people filed past the grave of the Unknown Warrior, as a mark of respect.

Peter Black of Newport (South Wales) had been a deserter at the Battle of the Somme. The authorities wanted his name to be removed from the Cenotaph, but scores of ex-servicemen insisted that it should remain. It is still there, despite later threats to detonate the great memorial. On one grave in France was written ‘Daddy. Thank you for five years of real happiness - I’ve missed you all my life. Love, Lily XXX’. This had been written by the daughter, who was in her nineties when interviewed by Richard van Emden.

© 2016 Dr Robert Blackburn, BRLSI Convenor for Literature and Humanities , based on notes from Richard’s talk


Among Richard van Emden’s many books on the Great War are:

  • Veterans; The Last Survivors of the Great War
  • Prisoners of the Kaiser
  • All Quiet on the Home Front
  • Last Man Standing
  • The Trench
  • Famous 1914-1918  
  • Britain’s Last Tommies
  • The Last Fighting Tommy (with Harry Patch)
  • The Quick and the Dead
  • Meeting the Enemy: the Human Face of the Great War

Also strongly recommended are Geoff Dyer: The Missing of the Somme  (Hamish Hamilton 1994 / Phoenix Press 2001), and Art from the First World War, published in2008 by the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, with a valuable introductory essay by Roger Tolson, Head of the Department of Art at the IWM. Of Dyer’s book, Jason Cowley in the Guardian wrote: ‘It is about mourning and memory, about how the Great War has been represented… and our sense of it shaped and defined by different artistic media… Its textures are the very rhythms of memory and consciousness…’ The IWM book has illustrations of a wide range of war artists, or artists who painted or sculpted war related scenes, from John Copley, Darsie Japp and Colin Gill to Charles Sims, CS Jagger and Sir Muirhead Bone, and including works by Percy Wyndham Lewis, CRW Nevinson, Paul Nash (The Menin Road), Sir George Clausen, Sir William Orpen, David Bomberg and John Singer Sargent (Gassed).