Of all the million British dead of the First World War, only one – The Unknown Soldier – was ever returned to his native land. An anonymous symbol of all those lost without trace in the carnage of the battlefields, he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey amid an outpouring of grief that brought the whole nation to a standstill, far outweighing even the emotion that was to greet the death of Princess Diana. Inspired by this example, almost every combatant nation buried its own Unknown Soldier and the graves became the focus of a pilgrimage that still continues today.
Drawing on largely unpublished letters and diaries, Neil Hanson has resurrected the lives and experiences of three unknown soldiers – a Briton, a German and an American. Nothing is invented or exaggerated, every word is based on the testimony of those who fought, those who died and those who mourned at home, and no book has ever shown the terrible reality of warfare in such compelling, unforgettable detail, nor told such a moving story of human life and human loss.
Through all their sufferings, the common humanity of those men and their loved ones shines through, and each one lives on in the memory of their families to this day. They stand at the head of a ghost army three million strong, all of whom have no known grave. Their story is the story of The Unknown Soldier.
‘In Neil Hanson’s prose, the dark ceremonial of Remembrance Sunday (has) an almost unbearable poignancy... A beautifully illustrated book that has all the sombre grandeur of the Beethoven funeral march.’
John Crossland, Sunday Times, London.
'There are still more than 100,000 British dead of WWI who have no known graves. Hanson's book shows how and why this happened. Threaded through the book are the stories of three soldiers who were to suffer this fate. Such is the power of his writing and his ability to involve the reader, it is a genuine shock when we read of their deaths - deaths that stand for so many others. Of all the books I've read on WWI, this really brought home the experience, the suffering and the lives of the men in the trenches. If I were to nominate a top pick, this would be it.'
Sue Baker, Books Editor, Publishing News
‘Neil Hanson had the imaginative idea of combining the story of the Unknown Soldier – the symbolic body buried in Westminster Abbey to represent all the myriad legions of Britain's missing – with the individual stories of three of those missing. His researches in four countries – the homelands of his subjects, plus France, the land where all three fought and died – have yielded an astonishing mine of information, which Hanson, a non-academic historian and an excellent writer, skilfully blends into an absorbing and consistently moving narrative framework... The story of the Unknown Soldier is itself a fascinating one, revealing the enormous impact the losses of the Great War had on the fabric of Britain... Hanson tells the story fully and well (and) puts flesh on the bones of the unknown soldier in the life-and-death stories of his three protagonists.’
Nigel Jones, Literary Review, London
'One of the best books I’ve read on the insanity of life in the trenches.’
Christopher Hudson, Daily Mail, London
‘The books that are read most widely are... the ones that allow families to see the way the war invaded every household and left traces and wounds palpable to this day. This is the register of The Unknown Soldier, Neil Hanson’s account of British and German families trying to cope with the loss of sons who had no known grave.’
Jay Winter, Times Literary Supplement
‘Neil Hanson’s splendid new book does as good a job of painting the picture as any I have read... It would be hard to find a more fitting epitaph to the millions who vanished into the pit of total war and were never seen again.’
Nottingham Evening Post, England
[The book] is among the most memorable to have come my way in over 30 years of reading, teaching and writing about that disaster. And that includes Henry Williamson, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and a dozen other immortals. [Hanson] writes with passion, as anyone should who ventures into this appalling subject, but his passion is restrained - and therefore doubly effective - by the quality of his scholarship and by his exceptional gift as a writer. He already has three well-received books to his credit and this one should make his name widely known.’
Dr Vincent Orange, The Press, New Zealand
‘Hanson writes learnedly, vividly and often in a moving way about a war that continues to haunt us.’
Steven Carroll, The Age, Australia
‘A fantastic read... terrific.’ Quentin Johnson, “Nine to Noon”
Radio New Zealand
‘In this powerful, painful, unforgettable story of the madness and futility of war, British author Hanson follows three ordinary warriors -British, German and American - through the logic-defying charnel house that was WWI. All died at the Somme and ended up among the war's nearly three million whose bodies remained unidentified. Making brilliant use of poignant, literary letters of these men and others, Hanson conjures a world that's hard for the modern reader to fathom... Vivid, sobering and without macho swagger or sentimentality, Hanson lets the voices of the unknowns speak across a bloody century with lessons for the new one.’
Publishers Weekly, USA (starred review)
‘Millions of the war dead lie under those [Flanders] fields. In "Unknown Soldiers" Neil Hanson unearths three of them — one American, one English and one German — and drawing on their long, detailed letters to family members, creates an unforgettable picture of life in the hottest sectors of the Western Front.’
William Grimes, New York Times, USA
‘"Unknown Soldiers" is as good as anything I have read about World War I — hard to stomach but impossible to forget. By interweaving the letters of Paul Hub and Alec Reader with published first-hand accounts of the battlefield, Hanson has made the familiar icons of trench, shell, gas, machine gun and mass slaughter seem shockingly new. As one German soldier put it, "We feel that all this murdering is unworthy of the human race." Hanson makes us feel the same.’
Paul Laskin, Seattle Times, USA
‘Mr. Hanson focuses on a German, a Briton, and an American and, using letters and other documents, 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 came to terms with their loss. The most fascinating part of the book, in fact, is this posthumous one... Mr. Hanson evokes the unparalleled solemnity of the first Armistice Day in 1920... and explains why it mattered so much to the bereaved that their grieving should take this particular ceremonial form... "Unknown Soldiers" resembles its subject: Its strength is its simplicity.’
Daniel Johnson, New York Sun, USA
‘This haunting and heartbreaking account drives home the oft-repeated adage that the death of millions is a statistic but the death of a single individual is a tragedy...This emotionally wrenching tribute brings home the fury and horror of the war as experienced by common soldiers who fell victim to it.’
Jay Freeman, Booklist, USA
‘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, St Louis Post-Dispatch, USA
‘Hanson focuses on three such "unknown soldiers": Paul Hub, a German; Alec Reader, a Briton; and George Seibold, an American. Drawing on diaries, letters, the memories of their loved ones and the testimony of other soldiers, he follows them into battle and to their deaths, then describes their families' struggle with heartbreaking loss. It was a time when common people recorded their feelings with uncommon eloquence (the epigraph, from a letter written by a German soldier the night before he died, is one of the bravest goodbyes you'll ever read), and grief was deep and private. For decades after the war, Reader's mother scoured battlefield cemeteries for his name. Hanson, who in this book brings Alec back to life, tells us that she died in 1954, "never knowing where her son lay and believing that his sacrifice had been forgotten.".’
Anne Stephenson, The Republic, USA
‘About a decade from now, a brief news article will mark the death of the last remaining veteran of World War I. With his passing, the 20th-century's first global calamity will slip quietly from most people's memories - unless they have read Unknown Soldiers’.
Christopher Capozzola, Christian Science Monitor, USA
Neil Hanson has written perhaps one of the most terrifying, moving, and ultimately melancholic histories of the soldiers of the Great War. Through Homeric research into personal letters, diaries and official documents... this book commemorates their sacrifice in an unforgettable way.’
John Davis, Decatur Daily, USA