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Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War [Hardcover]

Neil Hanson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

16 May 2006
The First World War was a conflict of unprecedented ferocity that unleashed such demons as mechanized warfare and mass death on the twentieth century. After the last shot was fired and the troops marched home, approximately three million soldiers remained unaccounted for. Some bodies were found, but they bore no trace of identification; many more men had been blown to smithereens or had simply vanished in battlefields where as many as a hundred shells had fallen on every square yard.

An unassuming English chaplain first proposed a symbolic burial of one of those unknown soldiers in memory of all the missing dead. The idea was picked up by almost every country that had an army in the war, and each laid a body to rest amid an outpouring of national grief -- in London’s Westminster Abbey, Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, Rome’s Victor Emmanuelle Monument, and, for the United States, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Reviewers have praised Neil Hanson’s account of the plight of the sailors in The Confident Hope of a Miracle, a history of the Spanish Armada, his last book. In Unknown Soldiers, he once again offers an unflinching yet compassionate account of the reality of battle on the front lines. He focuses on three soldiers—an American, an Englishman, and a German—and narrates their war experiences through their diaries and letters. Hanson describes how each man endured the nearly unbearable conditions in the trenches and in the air and relates what is known about their deaths: all three died on the battlefields of the Somme, within gunshot sound of one another. He delves into their familial ties, the ideals they expressed in their letters, and he explains how the death of one, the American pilot George Seibold, was instrumental in the creation of the Gold Star Mothers, an organization caring for bereaved mothers, wives, and families that is still active today. Hanson animates and brings to life the combatants who perished without a trace, and shows how the Western world arrived at the now time-honored way of mourning and paying tribute to all those who die in war.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 474 pages
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (16 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307263703
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307263704
  • Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 16.3 x 4.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,371,291 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

The path that led me to become an author was a pretty rambling one. Along the highways, byways and frequent cul de sacs of a very chequered career, I've been a plasterer's mate, an ice-cream salesman, a holiday camp redcoat, an art gallery director, and simultaneously an art critic and a rugby commentator - now there's a combination you don't see every day. I've also been the editor of the drinker's bible, The Good Beer Guide, and the owner of the highest pub in Britain, and I've travelled round the world twice, edited an assortment of obscure magazines, made a couple of television films, been a radio broadcaster in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and written for newspapers around the world.

However, the world's longest adolescence finally had to come to an end one day and since then I've been pretty much a full-time author with around 50 published books to my name so far. Under my own name I write narrative non-fiction - popular history, though the sales figures suggest it's not quite as popular as I'd like it to be. I'm not a member of what you might call "the David Starkey School" of history, I'm less interested in kings, queens, prime ministers and generals than I am in what happens to ordinary people caught up in great events. I don't like "winner's history" either; I want to know the view from all sides of a conflict or issue and I'm as interested - and sometimes more interested - in the aftermath of great events than I am in the events themselves. Some of the best stuff I've written (in my opinion at least) really catches fire at the point where most other historians leave off, and that's as true, I think, of my book about the Spanish Armada "The Confident Hope of a Miracle", "The Dreadful Judgement" about the Great Fire of London, and The Custom of the Sea, as it is of "The Unknown Soldier", my book about the Unknowns buried in Westminster Abbey and at national shrines in Paris, Washington and all over the world.

My day-job is as a ghostwriter: a writer of other people's books for them. Clients have included a treasure diver, a kidnap negotiator, an explorer, a spy, a long-distance walker, a submariner, an England football coach, a cricketing legend, a controversial historian, an undercover investigator, an IRA informer, several travellers and adventurers, two fast-jet pilots and half a dozen SAS men. At various times I've also written screenplays, thrillers, short stories, a serious novel, a playscript for a musical, travel journalism, and book reviews. The one thing missing from my portfolio is poetry and believe me, there's a very good reason for that...

If you can still cope with yet more of me boasting about myself, my website is: http://www.neilhanson.co.uk

and my facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Neil-Hanson/456508287757319

and if you're still not sated, you can find the talk I gave about my book The Unknown Soldier at the Pritzker Military Library, Chicago at

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the best yet! 24 Mar 2008
I am an avid reader of most things historical, but had never turned to 20th century history. I did so two years ago and read several books relating to both world wars. Most were boringly academic at their level, and disjointed in their format. What a pleasant surprise to discover the talent of Neil Hanson. Without doubt, this book has become my favourite and already I am into my third reading. Using three combatants from WWI and having carefully researched their letters and diaries, Neil carefully and compassionately introduces them to us as they prepare for the adventure of war. Time progresses and the reality of the horror of war creates a degree of fatalistic despair. At the ceasing of hostilities, Neil then takes the reader on an emotional journey with the unknown soldier,(not just the British but the French and American unknowns too) taken from the battlefield and conveyed to his resting place at Westminster Abbey, and there is also the birth of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, all emotionally described in superb historical detail. I could go on but suffice to say this book is highly recommended and in its subject matter it is in my view the best yet!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent. 7 Jun 2010
By Mr. Pj Williams VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
after a trip to Ypres and the Somme I finally read this after it had been sat on my shelf for 6 months. after seeing the names of the missing on so many tombstones it sort of gave them a personality instead of just a name. he takes three soldiers who were killed and never found and weaves a expertly written narrative that flows beautifully in style while realist in nature of subject matter. he weaves in the creation of the unknown soldier memorials towards then end but all the way through he discusses and explains little discussed aspects of warfare and politics, from tactics and strategy to the feelings good and bad of all aspects of society. the book is brilliant I recommend for anyone interested in a lesser discussed aspect of war. its dead
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Amazon.com: 4.8 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worthy of Pulitzer. 27 July 2006
By Monty Rainey - Published on Amazon.com
Perhaps I am the last to know why, but for some reason, of late, there have been a half score of new tomes introduced regarding the Somme or some other closely related aspect of the Great War. UNKNOWN SOLDIERS: THE STORY OF THE MISSING OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR by Neil Hanson is the second of said recent releases that I have enjoyed. As with the other recent book I have read on the subject, simply titled The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War, by Martin Gilbert, Hanson seems to have taken a unique new approach to the chronicles of the Great War by providing the reader with a detailed, constricted first person account, not of the politics, leadership, logistics and statistics of the war, but rather from the viewpoint of those who actually fought in the trenches. Hanson does leave himself a narrow margin for editorializing, but it is minimal and in no way detracts from this extraordinary book.

This book chronicles the lives of three soldiers, one British, one German, and an American airman. Remembering that the early 20th century was a time of enlightenment when, for the first time in history, even the common soldier possessed not only the desire, but the ability to record his experiences in written word, Hanson takes much of his content directly from the letters of these men to their families and friends back home. These first hand accounts of war are largely void of politics and strategies. Such intricacies are omitted to lay way for accounts of struggle for basic survival in what was arguably the most horrific measure of battle humanity has ever endured.

This is a rather difficult book to read, not because it is poorly written; quite the reverse is true. This book is difficult because, of all the books I have read on war, and there have been many, this book is without equal as the most graphically descriptive. I spent much of my adult life as a soldier and have seen first hand, the horrors of war, but my own accounts seem almost trivial compared to what the men of the Somme endured. I stress this here because I want readers to understand, this book holds nothing back. This is not intended for the faint of heart or for young readers.

The German soldier chronicled here, Paul Hub, survived the Somme and we then follow him briefly to his promotion to 2nd Lt., and on to the second battle of Verdun. This is about the time the American Airman, George Seibold, is introduced. Seibold was about as close to American nobility as one could get. He wed his wife only hours before going off to battle the Hun.

Hanson dedicated the final one third of the book to the enduring effects of the war. He painstakingly details the efforts to recognize the many thousands of unidentified soldiers strewn about the hillsides of Flanders and northern France. Descriptive detail is given to the final memorials for the unknown soldiers at the Cenotaph, the Arc de Triomphe, and America's own Tomb of the Unknowns, as well as scores of other memorials recognizing those "unknown but to God". Hanson also closely follows the heart wrenching efforts of Grace Seibold, George Seibold's mother and the Gold Star Mothers who took their anguish to their own graves of not knowing where their sons' bodies lay interred.

Hanson concludes his work with an exhaustive 100 pages of notes and bibliography. I can say with unwavering certainty that this book is, in my humble opinion, Pulitzer material. I have read many books of Pulitzer notariety that pale in comparison to this magnificent work. This is an extraordinary and exhaustive account that will forever change your understanding of the Great War.

Monty Rainey

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars REMEMBER 9 Jun 2006
By M. J. Hackethal - Published on Amazon.com
I have tried over the years, with varying rates of success, to read a history of WWI. Finally I have found a readable book on the subject. Mr. Hanson's use of diaries and letters from American, British and German soldiers paints the most vivid picture of life in the trenches. War is hell, but WWI took it to another level entirely. For the men on the lines on the Western Front life was a nightmare to the 100th power. This is the poignant story of the 3,000,000 missing of the Great War. It is almost 100 years on since the guns fell silent, but I hope the their sounds continue to echo across time to remind people that war isn't always about surgical strikes with bombs and remote controlled drones. There are real people fighting and dying. Flesh and blood. Unknown Soldiers reminds us of that and forces us to remember.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and compelling book on the 'Missing Men' 15 Jun 2006
By Ironmike - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Mr Hanson has done a superb job of reseach and writting in this powerful book on the hundreds of thousands of men with 'no known grave'. A haunting and grim tour of the trenches told in the words of three men, one a Briton, a German and an American flier - all victims of the war and none found a known grave. The letters that were incorporated into the text and the writer's gripping style makes this a hard book to put down as it features many little known facts of the 'missing', their families and their personal connections.

A must read for any and all World War One buffs and for anyone interested in this aspect of major conflicts. Excellent.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The soldier's point of view 4 Jun 2007
By Armchair Interviews - Published on Amazon.com
When I agreed to review Neil Hanson's book, I expected something far, far different. Something perhaps more along the lines of an epistolary format or the utilization of a more conventional fictional format. What I got was a meticulously researched, well-written, captivating horrifying, narrative history that took me to the Somme in 1916. Hanson focused on three soldiers: A Briton, a German, and an American. "Their tracks, faint as smoke in the wind, intersect time and again, but they are united only in death, for each was killed on the Somme, within gunshot sound of each other."

Hanson uses more than the diaries and letters to explain the cost of war from the soldier's point of view. He researched the heck out of this battle, topic, and time as evident by the 96 pages of footnotes.

In an essence, Hanson is giving faces to the three million unaccounted-for soldiers from WWI. He also explains how the world remembers those unknown soldiers ever since. "The grieving families of such men were deprived even of the consolation of a funeral and a grave site, and for them, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier became the grave and the gravestone of their lost loved ones. In almost every combatant nation, an unknown solider was also buried at some national shrine and, just as in America, at once became the focus of a pilgrimage that continues to this day

I admit that, as a predominately fiction reader, the quote marks around quoted passages versus dialogue sometimes tripped me, as did the switch in point of view with a sentence. I had to often re-read paragraphs, sometimes, chapters, to be sure of what was happening. But the structure works--well, very well. I came away from this book with a new respect for fighting men and women everywhere. I also came away with an intimate new knowledge of trench warfare that on one level I'm not sure that I wanted to know but on another level compelled me to keeping reading.

I thought I kind of knew what WWI was like, but I had no idea. This book should be compulsory reading in every high school or college worldwide.

Armchair Interviews says: An eye-opening story of the soldiers of World War I. Check his web site to see what else he has written.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique and Moving 31 Oct 2008
By Peter Corrigan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
The beginning epitaph is strong enough but Mr. Hanson never falters throughout. I have read many military books...often with slight sense of guilt. Should I even try to be recreating this in my mind? Understanding this? The horror of WW1 is transcendent. Mr. Hanson does an outstanding job of making that known to any reader who dares venture there. It should be required reading as another reviewer has said. It seems like WW1 made all things possible that followed. Civilized nations that could send millions into that and for what? The war aims were so pitifully small and deceitful. The aftermath is beautifully handled. I thought I would get bored with the details of the ceremonies to the Unknowns...but it was ultimately more meaningful and made the book great. The tableau from France and then in London on 11 November 1920 is amazing...he recreates every hymn and the incredible impact on the populace. Truly it should have ended all wars. I only wish we could have seen what the defeated did...of course by then Austria-Hungary was gone and Russia Bolshevik. Did they ever create an Unknown Soldier for those suffering peoples?
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