Via the Funambulist I’ve stumbled across an early film by the young Peter Watkins, The diary of an unknown soldier. Made in 1959 when Watkins was just 24, six years before The War Game, it recounts – in what was to become Watkins’ signature documentary style – the last, desperate hours before a young soldier on the Western Front goes into combat for the first time.
This is how Watkins himself tells the story behind the film:
In the mid 1950s, I underwent compulsory military service in Britain. Managing to avoid being sent on a draft to fight the Mau-Mau in Kenya, I landed a clerical post in Canterbury, Kent, where I fortunately met a group of people running an amateur theatre group called ‘Playcraft’. This group regularly staged a series of very clever productions in the small living room of Alan and June Gray – with Alan and Anne Pope, Stan and Phyllis Mercer, and other friends who acted, helped with designs and sets, and invited the local audience to the twenty or so seats tightly crammed into the room. A drama student bitten by the ‘acting bug’ in London before my military service, I acted in several of Playcraft’s productions – including in R.C. Sheriff’s anti-war drama, Journey’s End, set in the trenches during World War I. Immediately following my release from the army, I was bitten by another – amateur filmmaking – ‘bug’, and acquired a Bolex spring-driven 8mm camera…
By 1959, while Watkins was working as an assistant film editor at ‘World Wide Pictures’, alongside a number of documentary filmmakers from the old Crown Film Unit, he wrote the script for ‘The Diary of an Unknown Soldier’. Here it is (the narrator is Watkins himself):
The film is remarkably effective at conveying the visceral nature of the landscape of fear confronting the anonymous young man – the shattered branches that turn into sharp bayonets – but above at showing the materiality and corporeality of the violence that was to come. As Léopold Lambert notes, ‘the way the body is filmed and described in the script is remarkable as it heavily insists on the fact that war for soldiers — in opposition to high-rank[ing] officers — is essentially a matter of bodies: their movement, their combination with the bullets and bombs trajectories and their relationship to the ground — in that case, the mud.’
Watkins was hired by the BBC’s documentary department in 1963, and the rest is indeed history…
The connections with “Gabriel’s Map” are very clear (at least to me: there are several sequences in which a young subaltern annotates his map). But what about the other ‘unknown soldier’ (or, rather, soldiers)?
The origins of this iconic memorial go back to 1916, when a British Army chaplain serving on the Western front, David Railton, saw one of countless graves on the battlefield at Armentières, this one marked by a simple cross bearing the words: “An unknown British soldier.” He became determined that those un-named soldiers from all over the British Empire who had fallen on the Front should be honoured by a single public memorial in Britain.
Finally, in early November 1920 the body of an un-named soldier was exhumed from each of the four major battlefields – the Aisne, Arras, the Somme and Ypres – and one of them was placed in a coffin and transported to London. On 11 November, two years after the Armistice, the ‘Unknown Warrior’ was re-buried in Westminster Abbey:
Similar memorials were constructed in other European countries, Australia and the United States.
You can find the full, much richer story in Neil Hanson‘s beautifully written and carefully researched The Unknown Soldier (2005), which splices the story of the iconic ‘unknown soldier’ with the stories of three others – British, French and German – who were declared missing during the War.
The classic discussion of some of the wider issues remains Jay Winter‘s Sites of memory, sites of mourning: the Great War in European cultural history (1998), while later this year David Crane promises to provide an account of the personalities and the politics involved in the construction of war graves in Empires of the Dead (2013).