Our research here in Flanders is almost done, and along with the memories we will be taking some small share of all this heartbreak home. No one who visits this corner of Europe, who walks among the graves of these countless young men, leaves unmoved. Our business has been names; the names of Irishmen who fought and died, and yet my own feelings have been stirred most by the hundreds and thousands of stones which read simply “A Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God.” These are the nameless, the unknown, and forgotten. Each of these was a young man pulled from the mud, perhaps decades after the armistice, with no insignia, no name, and not enough fabric by which to know even on which side he fought. None of these boys were the sons of the rich; they had neither title nor inheritance, but what they have in common is their unimportance then and now. Enlisted and conscripted from the slums and the tenements of Glasgow, Dublin, Manchester, or London and forced to fight for the glory of princes and kings. Taken from mothers and lovers and set out in battle array before the thunder of artillery shells, gas, and bullets beyond count. The Greatness of war robbed them of their lives, and in their passing it took also their names.
Row after row of men and boys whose families were told nothing more than that their sons were missing, and still – a century later – they remain missing. Every grave is a witness to a life cut off, but the cold words on the stone call out from the ground, ‘Here lies an unknown.’ It mattered nothing to the butchers that their victims once had names, and it mattered nothing to their masters that they fought for no good reason. What did it matter who had the greatest empire, Kaiser or King? Under Britain or Germany, France or Austria, Russia or Italy these poor unknowns would have lived out their lives in the same impoverished industrial misery. We can be sure that none of them thought a damn of king and country as they lay bleeding in no-man’s-land, and neither king nor country thought a damn about them when they left them there to rot. Everywhere about us we read on poppy crosses those ironic words Lest We Forget, but unless their murderers can remember the names of the men and boys they sent to die their Lest We Forgets mean as little as their crowns and palaces. Tomorrow we turn our backs on Flanders and make for home, but I will forever make sure that I will never forget what kings and countries did to the poor. What is also known unto God is their despicable crime.