Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner reviews Jean-Yves Le Naour's "The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War," (Metropolitan: Holt, 2004)

Oct 16, 2004 10:26 am


Murray Polner reviews Jean-Yves Le Naour's "The Living Unknown Soldier: A Story of Grief and the Great War," (Metropolitan: Holt, 2004)



Nine months before the end of World War I, a French soldier was found alone and abandoned in a Lyon railroad station. He had been part of a group of sixty-five mentally shattered soldiers repatriated as a result of a Franco-German agreement to return prisoners of war deemed too broken to ever return to the battlefield. The soldier was without identifying scars, marks, and papers of any kind. He had no idea why he was in Lyon or who he was. Unable to offer any answers, his photo and advertisements were placed in newspapers seeking the whereabouts of family or friends. Not knowing what else to do, befuddled authorities sent him to a mental institution while families throughout the country spent decades claiming him as their own. His keepers gave the soldier the fictional name of “Anthelme Mangin.”

French historian Jean-Yves Le Naour, who teaches at the University of
Aix-en-Provence (he has also written “A History of Sexual Behavior during World War I”) has painstakingly researched the sad story of an obscure soldier and a country consumed with postwar grief. If nothing else, Le Naour’s admirable and readable account shines a mirror on the insanity of war and the high price it always demands of its participants and their families.

“The men and women of a France that had veiled itself in black, torn asunder by the individual and collective mourning for some 1,400,000 dead and missing men, were all too familiar with the pain of loss … ‘And if it were my son, my husband, my brother, ny comrade?’ asked everyone who had never given up hope ” for the 400,000 soldiers said to be missing. Their graves or bodies were never found but the need to find a loved one who might still be alive obsessed France for more than twenty years after Mangin, an amnesiac, “a living dead man, a ghostly symbol of grief” appeared. Perhaps skeptics can now better appreciate why so many families refused to give up hope when they insisted, against all reason and for so long, that their missing relatives in the Vietnam War might still be alive.

During the Great War, shell shock, battlefield fatigue, fear and horror and the consequences of combat, was usually explained (remember General Patton’s contempt for soldiers unable to function in combat in WWII and those of his countrymen who applauded his slapping a hospitalized combat soldier) as usually affecting troops not quite right in the head. “Warfare and its violence were left largely blameless,” notes Le Naour sarcastically, “the sick were ‘predisposed,’ the victims of a morbid heredity and war only revealed or aggravated what was already there.” He quotes a corporal whose job was to ferret out dog tags among the corpses who, said the corporal were: "half-squashed, mangled, caked with dirt, tangled on equipment, packs, bags, no longer much of anything but muddy, bloody heap.” And he digs up an official document reporting that the broken and"vaporized" bodies of the dead “took up less space in their caskets than their names did on their dog tags.” Is it any wonder that in today’s war in Iraq, Americans are not permitted to see the remains of the dead or even the grievously wounded?

National mourning after so devastating a war meant, at least in France, honoring the fallen and missing, and ultimately accepting the death of a loved one. Sigmund Freud, for example, tried to prepare himself for the possible deaths of his three sons fighting at the front by analyzing and explaining the complicated elements of grief in “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” and “Mourning and Melancholy,” both published in 1915.


In the end, Le Naour concludes, France was “morally defeated, without resources or energy, with a sense of accelerated decadence and Pyrrhic victory.” Why the war was fought and who profited from the war and whether it was worth the human cost absorbed politicians and ideologues for decades after, as it did elsewhere, leading in time to more wars against internal dissidents and supposed external enemies. The “war to end all wars” proved to be just another meaningless mirage politicians and their sycophants invent to assuage postwar critics and the families of the dead.

Mangin was certainly not the only reason post-WWI France plunged into such despair and defeatism, but the prominent role he unwittingly played allowed the depressing situation to fester and spread. In 1942 – with much of France now ruled by the pro-fascist Vichy government-- this"living unknown soldier"-- who it turned out was really named 0ctave Felicien Monjoin, died, and was buried in a common cemetery. In 1948, his remains were exhumed and placed in another grave not as an amnesiac victim of war but rather as “ a collective ceremony honoring the living unknown soldier, martyr of the Great War, around whom the community and France had drawn together in suffering.”

Since then, France has fought senseless wars in Algeria and Indochina, losing both, but once again, like all other warring nations and tribes, leaving in its wake dead and missing soldiers, including reluctant conscripts, not to mention civilians, among them more grieving family members. The more things change….





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