Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Pg. 99: Neil Hanson's "Unknown Soldiers"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Neil Hanson's Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War.

About the book, from the publisher:
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.
Among the praise for Unknown Soldiers:
“An unforgettable picture of life in the hottest sectors of the Western Front”
--William Grimes, New York Times

“Stunning... Unknown Soldiers tells you vividly how it felt when the world, then believed to be on a firm foundation, began to stagger and crash.”
--Anthony Day, Los Angeles Times

“Hanson has rescued a rich store of letters from the attics of three nations, using them to remind readers both of the horrors of war and the obligations of memory.”
--Christopher Capozzola, Christian Science Monitor

“A moving testament to the futility of war... To honor the 3 million fallen soldiers who were never identified in World War I, Hanson relates the individual stories of three young men -- A German, an Englishman, and an American [who] were lost in the area of the Somme River.”

“One of the best books I’ve read on the insanity of life in the trenches.”
--Daily Mail, UK

“Vivid, sobering... Hanson lets the voices of the unknowns speak across a bloody century with lessons for the new one.”
--Publishers Weekly

“Fascinating social history... Hanson richly describes the outpouring of grief after this war.”
--Library Journal

“Hanson...reconstructs these ordinarily extraordinary biographies. He shows us not only just how these young lives were abbreviated in the abyss of trench warfare, but how their ‘people’ ... family as well as nation -- came to terms with their loss.”
--Daniel Johnson, New York Sun

“Hanson builds on the experience of his three warriors to put WWI in haunting perspective. Their touching letters make you wonder: Will any future historian ever be able to put the same personal touch on what Americans in Iraq experienced?”
--Harry Levins, Sunday Post-Dispatch
Read an excerpt from Unknown Soldiers. Learn more about the book and author at Neil Hanson's website.

Hanson is the prolific and successful author of an acclaimed series of popular histories including The Custom of the Sea, The Dreadful Judgement, and The Confident Hope of a Miracle.

The Page 99 Test: Unknown Soldiers.

--Marshal Zeringue