The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval is one of the most memorial memorials on the Western Front battlefields of the Great War. But what did it mean to be missing?
Those ‘missing’ during and after the war were separate but overlapping groups. After the war, those commemorated were the men whose bodies had never been found, or were found and could not be identified (either because they were so badly damaged or because their ID discs were missing), or those who whose graves had been lost in subsequent fighting.
During the war, the ‘missing’ were the men about whom there was no certain information. They might have been killed, severely wounded, or taken prisoner. Not knowing what had happened to them caused anguish to these men’s families.
The large overlap between these two categories during major battles is shown by the group of ‘missing’ published in the Daily Sketch in August 1916:
These men’s families were desperate for information. Their photos and details were published along with the addresses of those seeking information – two of the six addresses here were in Clapham, one from Seven Kings, and the others elsewhere in the UK.
All six were killed on 1st July 1916, at the start of the Battle of the Somme, meaning that these pictures were published over a month later. If there was no firm news, it would be months later that they were officially assumed to have been killed.
- 2nd Lt Aubrey White from Dublin – 1 July 1916 aged 20 – Lonsdale Cemetery, Authuille
- 2nd Lt William Henry Ratcliffe from Nottingham – 1 July 1916 aged 19 – Dantzig Alley cemetery, Mametz
- Cpl Thomas Edward Dicks from Clapham (59 Leppoc Road) – 1 July 1916 aged 21 – Thiepval Memorial
- Rfm James Britten from Clapham (4 Bewick Road) – 1 July 1916 – Serre Road Cemetery
- Sgt Lionel Robert Last from Clacton, Essex – 1 July 1916 aged 20 – Thiepval Memorial
- Rfm Clifford Hugh Butcher from Leyton (about whom V.W. Parrish in Seven Kings sought information) – 1 July 1916 aged 18 – Thiepval Memorial
All of these men were aged between 18 and 21 (I think Britten was 19, but am not certain). In Clapham, Seven Kings, Clacton, Nottingham and Dublin, there were men and women hoping that they had survived, or at least that they had died painlessly.
Three of them were buried in cemeteries, so one would hope that news of this burial reached home before too long. The other three remained ‘missing’ for ever, commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
Unveiling the Menin Gate in 1927 (the equivalent monument for Ypres), General Plumer attempted to assuage the grief of the families of the missing:
“Now it can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today: ‘He is not missing; he is here’.”