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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Unknown Soldier

Reviewed: November 12, 2008
By: Linda Granfield
Publisher: North Winds Press (Scholastic)
42 pages, $19.99

It’s just a sad fact that one of the results of any military conflict is a lot of dead bodies. They used to be primarily the bodies of enlisted men and mercenaries, but in our age of Total War, men, women and children are just as apt to be part of the body count.

The body count itself could be even more difficult by the propensity of bombs and shells to blow people into itty-bitty pieces and separate them from their identification tags. Indeed, even those soldiers (mostly young men in those days.) who were thought to have been safely buried could find themselves disinterred and there remains scattered by a fresh artillery barrage or a bombing raid.

Thus it came about that there were many “unknown soldiers”, corpses for whom there was no certain identity. At the end of the conflict variously known as World War I and the Great War there were many many tombstones which simply bore this legend: “A Soldier of the Great War - Known to God”.

It had been the practice of warring nations to put up monuments to honour their victories in conflict, and there are many of those throughout Europe and the United Kingdom. Indeed, the various “victory gardens scattered about Canada, each with its symbolic piece of captured enemy cannon, carry on that tradition even today.

But in 1920, beginning with France and England, the combatants in the 1914-18 war began to do something different. They began to erect memorials to their unknown war dead, to honour the lives that were given to attain the victories, or those that were lost in defeat. It had long been the practice for local communities to put up name plaques for this purpose, often in local churches, but this was something new.

It would be another 80 years before Canada dedicated its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, across the street from the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, and New Zealand became the last nation in the Commonwealth to do the same in 2004.

Having introduced the concept in the first four pages, Granfield spends another four on Canada’s memorial, and then devotes a series of one and two page spreads to France, England, the USA, Italy, Belgium. Poland, Germany, Greece , Japan, Russia, Iraq, Australia and New Zealand.

There is also a short section on traditions around the world, and an explanation of some of the symbolism used on monuments and individual grave markers, as well as a glossary of terms.

This is a well thought out, interesting book for young people, with a good balance of informative text, photographs and illustrations. Adults will be able to learn a lot from it too.

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