For a long time after I wrote Wake, I wondered why I had written a novel about the impact of the burial of the Unknown Warrior in November 1920. I don’t mean that to sound disingenuous, but even after researching WW1 for three years and writing for over two, then spending a good couple of years talking to readers about the book, I still didn’t quite understand why the Unknown Warrior had so magnetised my attention and formed the locus of my novel. It was only when, after seven years of trying, I finally became a mother, that I finally allowed myself to understand. Let me explain.
Wake takes place over five days in November 1920, from the 7 to the 11 November. The novel tells the story of three women: Ada, Evelyn and Hettie, all dealing (or not dealing) with the aftermath of the war in their own ways. The spine of the book though, and the reason it takes place over those particular five days, is the journey of the body that would become the Unknown Warrior from exhumation on the Western Front to burial in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day.
Before researching the period I hadn’t known much about the Unknown Warrior. If I thought of his grave at Westminster Abbey or of the Cenotaph at all, I suppose I saw them symbols of an imperialist, patriarchal culture to which I felt little connection. I was more interested in how the war had affected women – how radically it had changed many of their prospects – how WW1 had accomplished something women had been campaigning for for years, giving them the vote in November 1918, just after the Armistice had been signed.
But the more I read about the period, the more I understood how those years immediately after the Armistice of 1918 were haunted ones. The government had taken the decision not to bring any of the bodies of the dead home for repatriation, and so over 700,000 men were buried close to where they died, on the Western Front and further afield.
As a consequence, on top of their losses the families and loved ones of the dead were denied the ordinary rituals of death. There were no funerals. No coffins. For the lucky ones there was communication, a map giving directions to a plot in one of the newly created mass cemeteries on the Western Front. For the even luckier there was, perhaps, the wherewithal to travel to France or Belgium and find the grave. But such a trip was far beyond the means of the vast majority of the population – it cost six pounds to go to the battlefield on a tour in 1920. Prohibitively expensive for most people, and so if you were a mother from Rotherham or a sister or wife from Bolton or Glasgow, the strong likelihood was that you would never visit your loved one’s grave.
This led to a vast, collective haunting. Ada, the mother in Wake, sees her son Matthew walking in the streets near her Hackney home. Such sightings were common – a huge majority of those who had lost someone reported sightings of their loved one. It was a time of ghosts.
Then the idea was proposed by Reverend David Railton to bring back just one body to stand for all those who had lost their lives. It was not immediately taken up: the King had to be persuaded, apparently he was concerned the idea was vulgar, "balanced precariously on the tightrope of taste". There were concerns, too, that a state funeral would open wounds which had just begun to heal.
But Parliament agreed and the burial of the Unknown Warrior went ahead. One body was chosen from four that had been exhumed from battlefields in France and Flanders. The cliffs of Dover were thronged with thousands of people waiting to witness the arrival of the ship that carried his body. Every mile of trackside and every station platform was packed with those wanting to catch a glimpse of the train carriage that brought the body from Dover to London. People stormed the platform at Victoria station. Hundreds of thousands travelled from across Britain to be present, bringing late flowers from their gardens, to lay at the Cenotaph, to file slowly past the unsealed tomb in the Abbey.
What mattered, and what was so extraordinarily potent about the ceremony – was that people felt the body could have been theirs. In attending this burial they could finally bury their son, their father, their husband, their lover, their comrade, could finally experience the ritual that acknowledges death.
I started writing Wake in 2011. I was 36, and had been trying to become a mother for two years. It would be five more years of heartache and many miscarriages until I had my daughter in 2016. Mostly, during those years, I kept my grief over my lost pregnancies to myself. It was only when I finally became a mother that I was able to admit to myself that somehow, without fully understanding why, I had fastened onto the most potent symbol I could find of the importance of acknowledging grief.
I don’t mean to equate pregnancy loss with the loss of a child or husband on a battlefield, but more to acknowledge that, whether from a soldier in battle or a five-week old pregnancy, we must allow ourselves to mourn, allow grief its space to surface, and to begin to move through it into something new.
It is one hundred years since the burial of the Unknown Warrior and we are once again at a time of national crisis. As we live through these strange troubled days of the time of Covid, as people die away from home, apart from their loved ones, the Unknown Warrior strikes with fresh relevance. I wonder what symbol might stand for the victims of Covid 19?
We live in a time of further, more catastrophic losses too – the sixth mass extinction. Every day we move close towards a reckoning with the natural world. Even if we cannot turn towards it, we know, somewhere deep down, that we are out of balance, that we must acknowledge the grief of these losses to become fully alive.
I think of the red brigades on the streets of London during the Extinction Rebellion protests last year, a silent Greek chorus, not preaching or hectoring, just standing, arms outstretched, faces painted white, bearing witness. Or of those who build cairns on English hillsides, each stone representing the loss of a species: the Yangtze River Dolphin, the Northern White Rhino, so many gone now, over 55,00 species a year. Offerings that say we know, we see, we acknowledge, we mourn, we live on.
Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin
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