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The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer

The Missing of the Somme (1994)

by Geoff Dyer

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I’m a casual WW1 buff. There just wasn’t much here to get me excited. If it is a memory study focusing on monuments, the production value needs boosted by a factor of five; namely, proper paper with proper photos. Not sure who he was writing this for, or who the publisher is marketing it to. ( )
  librarianbryan | Nov 18, 2013 |
Let's just acknowledge a few things: 1. Dyer is not an in-depth critic with the ability to thoroughly plumb a concept. 2. Dyer is not a historian. 3. Dyer is always, no matter what, present in his texts, either as an explicit "I" narration forming it all or as an anecdotal presence.

None of these things are problems for me. Geoff Dyer's ADD approach to writing--wherein an idea will be tossed out and written about for a sentence or a paragraph--excites me: the quality of those ideas often catch hold of my mind and encourage ongoing rumination even after I've finished the book. In this one, for example, there's an off-hand reference to Britain's failure to attain glory in polar exploration as a society-large preparation for how it viewed the Great War in memorialization: an exaltation of glorious failure. His tactic of using art and literature to explore history worked very well for me in this slim book. Though it is definitely not the read for anyone looking for a blow-by-blow account of WWI, it does not intend to be: this is a consideration of memory, of how British society consciously--even as early as the war's beginning--shaped how it would remember the war. Dyer's use of Wilfred Owens and his interrogation of various war memorials are brilliant. And his personal presence, his family's history in the war and his own travels through the Somme in research for this book, give the study a rich emotional grounding (and also provide some levity in what is, by nature, a devastating subject). This is an excellent companion volume to more traditional histories and I would recommend it to anyone interested in WWI; also, any readers intrigued by concepts of historical memory and how it is formed should definitely seek this out regardless of whether they have an extant interest in the Great War. ( )
  aliceunderskies | Apr 1, 2013 |
The War to End All Wars didn't. At least in the United States, the vast majority of those alive today probably view World War I as the chapter in their history textbook before the Depression and World War II. And the death earlier this year of the last surviving combat veteran of the Great War reinforces that people with firsthand memories of the conflict recollection of it grow fewer each day. Yet British author Geoff Dyer suggests that even while it was being fought, "the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time when it would be remembered."

First published in Britain in 1994, Dyer's The Missing of the Somme is making its first appearance in a U.S. edition. A slim (176 pages), somewhat quirky work, Dyer considers World War I through the poetry, literature, biographies, and photography of the time, along with a bit of travelogue of monuments and cemeteries. It is as far from a history of the war as one might get. To the contrary, Dyer says his goal was not even to write about the war itself but, rather, its impact on his generation. (He was born in 1958.) Nor was this to be a novel. Instead, he viewed the project as "an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance…"

A meditation on remembrance is the best way to describe the work. The various literary and artistic works Dyer discusses deal with how the war would be and is remembered. In fact, remembrance started early, according to Dyer. He points to perhaps the best known poem by Laurence Binyon, "For the Fallen," which would come to adorn many war memorials. It was published in September 1914, about a month after the first British troops went to France and three weeks after the first British soldier died in the conflict. That means, Dyer says with just a hint of exaggeration, perhaps the leading remembrance of those killed in the war was written "before the fallen actually fell. 'For the Fallen', in other words, is a work not of remembrance but of anticipation, or more accurately, the anticipation of remembrance: a foreseeing that is also a determining."

Remembrance arose to the point that 30,000 war memorials were erected in France between 1920 and 1925. Yet even memorials feel the toll of time. And the fact time also affects remembrance itself is seen in another example. For decades, November 11 was Remembrance Day in the U.K. (Armistice Day in the U.S.). People would cease activity for two minutes of silence at 11 a.m., the time the Armistice was signed. Although that may still occur, Britain now has Remembrance Sunday, held the second Sunday of November to commemorate those who served in both World Wars. (Here in the U.S., Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1958 and 10 years later it became a movable Monday holiday.)

Dyer's interest in the memory of World War I stems in part from the fact his grandfather fought in the Battle of the Somme, which still holds the calamitous distinction of seeing the most British casualties ever in one day. Undoubtedly, ensuing generations were impacted by World War I. The numbers are almost stunning. According to Dyer, there were 918 cemeteries built on the Western Front with more than 750,000 graves, approximately a quarter of which contain unidentified remains. He also notes that it would take three and a half days if the dead of the British Empire marched past the war memorial where the Remembrance Sunday service is held.

It is difficult perhaps for Americans to grasp the extent of the generational impact for Britain, France and other European countries. After all, the U.S. suffered 10 percent of the military deaths the British Empire did and even fewer compared to France and Germany. This alone means it is unlikely The Missing of the Somme will attract much attention in the U.S. That does not, however, change the fact it is a unique, albeit idiosyncratic, reflection on war.

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie.)
  PrairieProgressive | Aug 13, 2011 |
Geoff Dyer is amongst the most erudite writers in Britain today. This exploration of the tragedy of World War One is extremely moving, and certainly made me reappraise my feelings involving a conflict which seemed so long ago as to be almost irrelevant to my life. ( )
  prof_brazen_guff | Aug 21, 2006 |
This book is not so much about the war and its battles as about the way of memorializing it, and the role of memory as time moves on. Before the fact, there is anticipated memory, how WILL one be remembered (cf. Rupert Brooke's, "If I should die, think only this of me..."). The books discusses the currency of memorialization when loss is fresh, and the inevitable movement of memory into the past until the links are broken. The two-minute silence was very meaningful to those who had lost men in the war; now hardly anyone is alive who was not a small child at that time.

The same thing is happening now with WWII; the veterans of that war are fading away fast. Clear memories for my father are "Dad's stories" to me, and for the next generation will be more remote still. ( )
2 vote Linda_22003 | Jul 25, 2006 |
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For my mother and father
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When I was a boy my grandfather took me to the Museum of Natural History.
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"Head bowed, rifle on his back, a soldier is silhouetted against the going down of the sun, looking at the grave of a dead comrade, remembering him..." A poetic and impressionistic tribute to those who perished in World War I--and those who lived, haunted by their memories. "Brilliant--the Great War book of our time."--Observer.
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This reflection on World War I is not your standard history; it's about mourning and memory, about how the Great War has been represented. It will appeal to readers interested in looking beyond the facts to the meaning and consequences of war in general.… (more)

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