Title: Missing in Action
Author: Marianne van Velzen
Published: June 1st 2018
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Non Fiction, History, War
Rating: 4.5 stars
Poor leadership, mismanagement, quarrels, distrust and accusations of hoaxing … this is the story of what happened after the guns were laid down and Australians tried to find their war dead.By the end of World War I, 45,000 Australians had died on the Western Front. Some bodies had been hastily buried mid-battle in massed graves; others were mutilated beyond recognition. Often men were simply listed as ‘Missing in Action’ because nobody knew for sure.
Lieutenant Robert Burns was one of the missing, and now that the guns had fallen silent his father wanted to know what had become of his son. He wasn’t the only one looking for answers. A loud clamour arose from Australia for information and the need for the dead to be buried respectfully.
Many of the Australians charged with the grisly task of finding and reburying the dead were deeply flawed. Each had his own reasons for preferring to remain in France instead of returning home. In the end there was a great scandal, with allegations of ‘body hoaxing’ and gross misappropriation of money and army possessions leading to two highly secretive inquiries.
Untold until now, Missing in Action is the compelling and unexpected story of those dark days and darker deeds and a father’s desperate search for his son’s remains.
Missing in Action, written by a journalist with a life-long passion for Australia and its history, is story that needs to be shared with the wider community. Drawing on a variety of sources to inform her text, Marianne van Velzen puts the microscope on those brave men who fought in the Great War and were listed as ‘missing in action’. This vital text works to build our understanding of the need to give respect and the correct burial rights to all those soldiers classed as ‘missing in action’. On the other hand, many soldiers may have been hastily buried in mass graves, or they may have been subject to body hoaxing. Missing in Action draws out attention to these facts in a revealing piece of writing.
There are some interesting facts that underpin the crux of Missing in Action by Marianne van Velzen. The close of World War I saw a loss of 45,000 Australians to the Great War effort. The sad fact is many of these soldiers were not given the proper burial and dignity they deserved. The awful circumstances of the war contributed to many of these soldiers being buried in massed graves, unable to be identified. In many cases, these men were classed as ‘missing in action’, as it was impossible to assign an identity to a body. Missing in Action zones in on one particular classic case of ‘missing in action’. Marianne van Velzen gives a voice to and opens our eyes to the compelling story of Lieutenant Robert Burns, one of those deemed ‘missing’ and his father’s painstaking search to discover the final fate of his beloved son. Mr Burns was one among so many family members seeking conclusive answers to their son’s whereabouts. A collective voice rose from Australia’s people. We wanted to know more information our brave men and what wished for most, was for these souls to be laid to rest in a respectful manner. Marianne van Velzen exposes a startling story, whereby those charged with the task of unearthing and reburying the dead were compromised. The end result was a scandal, where accusations of body hoaxing, army possessions and money was inappropriately handled. This culminated in a number of secret inquiries. Missing in Action works to disclose this dark segment of the Great War, simultaneously revealing the pain of one man’s loss of his son’s remains.
A quick glance of my bookshelves revealed I have another of book written by Marianne van Velzen, the talented journalist who has brought us this compelling book, on my shelves, which is a book about the outback. Although the subject matters of these books are worlds apart, it can still be said that van Velzen clearly has a passion and aptitude for bringing critical aspects of our nation’s history before the eyes of the reader in current day times. It is a hard task, but I believe van Velzen gives this essential subject the recognition and respect it deserves.
The decision to focus the book on a case study of the main subject matter was a wise move on behalf of the author. The case of Lieutenant Robert Burns and his father’s relentless search to find his son’s remains gives a voice to the thousands in this very same predicament. Although this happened over a century ago, the impact continues to be felt and hard. At many points reading this book I felt a great wave of emotion wash over me. From disbelief, disgust, pity, shame and heartbreak. This is one book that will make you feel deeply upset for the final fate of those men who helped carve the way for our nation as it stands today.
Along with the personal case study of Robert Burns, van Velzen has incorporated a plethora of information within each chapter of her book. From focussing on the key figures and personnel involved in burying or reburying the dead, via firsthand accounts, the impact of this mismanagement is felt hard. Marianne van Velzen also incorporates in depth studies of government sources, so she leaves no stone unturned in her quest to draw our attention to the sad fate of our Australian soldiers. Accompanying the text at the close of the book readers will find a rich notes section, followed by an extensive bibliography and a handy index section. Photographs also appear at the half way mark of the book, providing a visual record to the information imparted by van Velzen.
For me, the most revealing part of this book was the work of recent work of Lambis Engelzos, an art teacher from Melbourne, with a special interest in military history. Lambis Engelzos enlisted the help of historian Peter Barton and together they campaigned for and eventually uncovered an unnoticed gravesite at Pheasant Wood. It amazes me how this gravesite could go undetected for so long, despite plenty of activity in the area. The persistence these two men displayed helped to solve a great war mystery and give a final resting place to those listed simply as ‘missing in action’. Advances in DNA and identification techniques have also culminated in many of the 200 men uncovered from this hidden grave to be properly identified. This truly is one take your breath away chapter from our history books.
Missing in Action details a regrettable chapter in the history of our nation and our contribution to the Great War. It exposes a litany of mismanagement, appalling behaviour and an inability to give our soldiers the level respect they deserved. Missing in Action is an eye opening piece of writing, that serves to remind us of the devastating effects of war, which continues to be felt over a century later.
Missing in Action by Marianne van Velzen was published on 1st June 2018 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of Missing in Action, Marianne van Velzen, visit here.
*I wish to thank Allen & Unwin for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.