The Belgian lancer

In August 1914, after a period of unstoppable national mobilizations across Europe, the Schlieffen Plan clicked into place and the first week of August saw invading hordes of German troops trudging into neutral Belgium (Fig. 3). In the Ardenne forest region of eastern Belgium, at the side of a straight tree-lined road, is a striking memorial to the first Belgian soldier to die (Fig. 4). He was a young trooper of the 2nd. Lancer Regiment named Antoine Fonck. The marble monument (1923) portrays his upper torso and the head of his rearing horse, conjuring up images of those early days when cavalry patrols still reconnoitered and skirmished in time-honoured fashion. On August 4 each year the nearby community of Thimister-Clermont holds a formal ceremony of homage at the monument.

Fig. 3 – ‘Gallant little Belgium’ confronts the invader. Large cigarette card from 25-card set of ‘Punch cartoons’ (Series 1) issued in 1916 by W.D. & W.O. Wills, Bristol. (Reproduced by courtesy of ‘Punch’ magazine)

Fig. 4 – Memorial to Belgian cavalryman Antoine Fonck, Ardennes, Belgium.

Beyond these attentions to individuals looms the shadowy multitude of those ‘missing in action’ (MIA). Rudyard Kipling’s only son, eighteen-year-old John Kipling, was declared ‘missing’ after the Second Battle of Loos in 1915 while serving as a second lieutenant with the Irish Guards. Like many thousands of others in the same distressing situation, Kipling and his American wife Carrie hoped for years that he might have survived or that his remains might be recovered. In 1992, fifty-six years after Rudyard Kipling’s death, body remains believed to be those of John Kipling were officially identified. This identification has been strongly disputed.4

The poignancy of such searches and the bleak post-war atmosphere along the old Western Front are portrayed in Bertrand Tavernier’s haunting film ‘La Vie et Rien d’Autre’ (1989) or ‘Life and Nothing but …’ in which two women, a wealthy Parisienne and a provincial schoolteacher, search for their loved ones amongst France’s 350,000 missing. At one point, the army Major assisting them (played by Philippe Noiret) angrily condemns the official attentions to selecting, at random, the corpse of an ‘Unknown Warrior’ from the Verdun sector, believing that this act was essentially political and intended to deflect full recognition of the frightful magnitude of the actual losses.

  1. Neil Oliver, Not Forgotten (London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2005) ISBN 0 340 89872 0. []