The First World War: trauma and memory
The First World War: trauma and memory

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The First World War: trauma and memory

3.1 Mourning the dead

The nature of death during the First World War severely disrupted traditional mourning practices.

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Figure 1 The grave of sapper Ivor Beynon of the Canadian Engineers, near the front line in the Ypres salient, 1918.

Outside of wartime, mourning would usually take place at burial sites and focus on the body of the deceased, but during the war this was frequently impossible. The bodies of many soldiers who died at the front could not be identified due to the horrific injuries they had sustained. During periods of intense fighting it was not always possible for bodies to be gathered up and given a proper burial, and those soldiers who could be identified were usually buried in makeshift graves near where they had fallen. Many were never found. Bereaved relatives and loved ones on the home front were therefore often deprived of a body or a grave at which they could mourn, and, where graves existed, they were often too far away to visit. This hindered closure, and often intensified personal trauma.

As a result, new funerary customs and mourning practices developed. Some bereaved families would adopt other bodies as a focus of their mourning, following the funeral cortèges of soldiers unknown to them. This notion that one dead soldier could symbolise all those who had died gave rise to the Tombs of the Unknown Soldier in London and Paris, both of which were established in 1920. In London, the body of an unidentified soldier, who had initially been buried on the Western Front, was entombed at Westminster Abbey. In Paris, the same was done at the Arc de Triomphe.

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Figure 2 The unveiling of the cenotaph in Whitehall, 1920.

In London, a cenotaph – which literally means ‘empty tomb’ – was also established in 1919. This was initially a temporary structure, but due to its popularity a permanent tomb was built and unveiled in 1920. Symbolically significant sites such as these, along with countless war memorials across the belligerent countries, proved popular focal points for mourning and continue to serve as commemorative sites to this day.

Historians have produced detailed studies of the effect of the war on specific towns and cities. One example is Osnabrück in Germany, a town of around 80,000 inhabitants in 1914. Between August 1914 and the end of 1919, around 2,200 soldiers from the town lost their lives. Statistically, that amounted to news of a death being received every 16 hours. In this town, 15 to 20 per cent of families suffered the loss of one soldier, with some losing as many as four relatives in the war. Assuming a wider ‘circle of mourning’ which extended beyond immediate relatives, it can be estimated that between 25 and 75 per cent of the town’s population were directly or indirectly affected by a war-related death.


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