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Friday, May 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Unknown Soldiers": Personal stories from killing fields of WWI

Special to The Seattle Times

"Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War"
by Neil Hanson
Knopf, 455 pp., $28.95

We live in a time of little-guy history. These days, we're rather read about the people who endured history — the common foot soldier and his worried family, the cop and the firefighter, the immigrant in steerage and the sweat-shop worker — than the generals and presidents who made it happen.

In "Unknown Soldiers," British writer Neil Hanson has pushed little-guy history one step further by telling the stories of three soldiers — one British, one German, one American — who disappeared literally without a trace on the killing fields of France. Though flawed, the book is a harrowing, unflinching account of what it was like to fight and die in the first industrial war.

"The bald statistics of the Great War — 9 million soldiers dead or missing, 21 million maimed or wounded and at least 12 million civilians killed — tend to numb us to the fact that each one of those millions was a human tragedy," writes Hanson.

From those millions of missing, he singled out three largely on the basis of their letters to loved ones. Shrewdly, disconcertingly, Hanson opens with the German, Paul Hub, a 23-year-old law clerk from a well-respected south German family, a devoted son and brother to four siblings (two of whom would die in the fighting).

Just before he left for military training, Paul became engaged to his childhood sweetheart. Within weeks, Paul's letters to his fiancée turn from cheerful flag-waving ("we were showered with presents at every station") to numb revulsion ("I have lived through such horror recently, no words can describe the tragedy all around me ... I didn't think war would be like this.").

Paul's counterpart in the British Army was Alec Reader, the eldest of five children of a comfortable middle class family from the London suburb of Wandsworth Common. Before he was 18, the pale, sensitive youth volunteered to serve as a private in the Prince of Wales' Own Civil Service Rifles and after a few months training he shipped off to France.

An engaging, witty correspondent, Alec somehow managed to strike a jaunty tone as he described rats devouring the cake his mother sent and sleepless nights spent digging trenches in the rain and being tormented by lice.

In the first half of the book, Hanson juxtaposes the experiences of these two soldiers in the great, futile bloodbaths of the first years of war, particularly the Battle of the Somme.

Barely mentioning the global chess game of strategy and politics, he focuses on the visceral in its literal sense: how an exploding shell can "slice a brain-pan like a cabbage stalk": or what goes through a soldier's mind when "burying a dead man whose head comes off in your hands." Hanson's true subject is not war but death and burial.

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There is scant mention here of why Europe went to war or what transpired at the meetings of presidents and generals or which division snatched which blasted village or hilltop. Plenty of other books cover that. But no other writer that I know of has looked as long and fearlessly as Hanson at the terrible business of dealing respectfully with millions of corpses while war still raged.

The problem with the book lies in its structure. Hanson's third unknown, the American pilot George Vaughn Seibold (from a well-connected Washington, D.C., family), appears almost as an afterthought halfway into the book. Though Seibold was killed "within gunshot sound" of Reader and Hub, he had a very different war in the dashing, chivalrous milieu of the flying aces.

Aside from Seibold's dogfights, there is little about American involvement, and almost nothing about French or Italian soldiers.

Once his three soldiers have died in battle, Hanson pretty much abandons the little-guy approach. There are a few pages on grieving families searching in vain for the bodies of their missing sons, and then the book wraps up with a prolonged elegiac coda about how the tombs of the unknowns in England, France, and America came to be.

The account of the "great silence" that descended when the entire British Empire ground to a halt during the interment of the unknown warrior on Nov. 11, 1920, is heartbreaking.

But such public set pieces belong to a different book, indeed a different genre from the intimate stories of Alec Reader, Paul Hub and George Seibold. "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.

David Laskin, author of "The Children's Blizzard," is at work on a book about the immigrant experience in the First World War.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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