Is the Great War now just a num­bers game?


TO­MOR­ROW, we should think only in num­bers, mind-blow­ing num­bers. For ex­am­ple, 65 mil­lion men were mo­bilised world­wide be­tween 1914-18. Of these, around six mil­lion Bri­tish civil­ians went to war. The av­er­age life ex­pectancy for sol­diers serv­ing in the trenches was no more than six weeks.

The govern­ment in 1924 put the to­tal num­ber of mil­i­tary deaths or miss­ing for Great Bri­tain and its colonies at 743,702. In ad­di­tion, the num­ber of wounded stood at 1,675,000.

The to­tal num­ber of mil­i­tary casualties in all war zones was 23 mil­lion mil­i­tary dead and wounded.

Such awe­some num­bers speak for them­selves, don’t you think?

Think also about that date – Mon­day, Novem­ber 11, 1918.

At 5am, nine men sat down to sign the pa­pers of Ar­mistice in a rail­way car­riage in a mist-filled for­est 37 miles north of Paris.

Al­though the war was over, cease­fire didn’t take ef­fect un­til 11am.

In those fi­nal six hours there were 10,944 casualties, of whom 2,738 men were killed in bat­tle.

Amer­i­can Pri­vate Henry Gun­ther was the last sol­dier of all the armies to be killed in ac­tion, at 10.59am.

Au­gustin-joseph Trébu­chon, a peace­time shep­herd, was the last French sol­dier killed at 10.45am.

Pri­vate Ge­orge El­li­son was the last Bri­tish sol­dier to be killed in ac­tion 90 min­utes be­fore the Ar­mistice.

Such mad­ness, in the po­etic words of Wil­fred Owen, is ‘the pity of war’.

I re­mem­ber open­ing a side­board drawer in the par­lour of my grand­fa­ther’s ter­raced house. I was seven in 1945, and the even more mon­strous Sec­ond World War had just ended.

Pok­ing around among a dusty jum­ble of pe­riod cu­rios, I came across a box of rib­bon-tagged medals.

One was the Bri­tish War Medal, 1914-18, known as ‘Squeak’, awarded to Bri­tish and Im­pe­rial Forces who ei­ther en­tered a theatre of war or en­tered ser­vice over­seas be­tween Au­gust 5, 1914, and Novem­ber 11, 1918, in­clu­sive.

Next to this was the Al­lied Vic­tory Medal, also known as ‘Wil­fred’.

The third was the 1914-15 Star, also known as ‘Pip’, awarded to all who served in any theatre of war against Ger­many be­tween Au­gust 5, 1914, and De­cem­ber 31, 1915.

Pip, Squeak and Wil­fred was a strip car­toon pub­lished in the Daily Mir­ror from 1919.

The medals were ir­rev­er­ently named af­ter the car­toon, iron­i­cally align­ing them with chil­dren’s play­things.

My grand­fa­ther never wore his medals ei­ther at home or in pub­lic. He never re­ferred to them: he didn’t have to as every other man in his vil­lage had a sim­i­lar col­lec­tion hid­den away in side­boards.

You’d think these neigh­bours would have been friends. And yet they seemed to be strangers, sep­a­rated by some un­speak­able men­tal block.

Grand­fa­ther nei­ther at­tended an Ar­mistice Day pa­rade nor went to the lo­cal ceno­taph on Remembrance Day; but I re­mem­ber he al­ways stood alone each year in his blue-brick paved back­yard at 11am on Novem­ber 11.

He, like the ma­jor­ity of veter­ans, re­fused to con­sider the killing fields, speak­ing of his life­long res­pi­ra­tory ill­ness caused by ‘trench fever’ as “some­thing to put up with”.

Was he lucky to have sur­vived? His re­sponse was sim­ple – “Sur­vival wasn’t lucky, it was the dead that were un­lucky.”

My grand­fa­ther moved house three times be­fore he died.

I asked him about his medals. “Oh I don’t know,” he wheezed ir­ri­ta­bly, “chucked in the bin where they be­long.”

And what of the medals be­long­ing to all those other men?

There must be a mil­lion ‘Pip’, ‘Squeak, and ‘Wil­fred’s’ knock­ing about in col­lec­tions av­er­ag­ing £50 in ex­change value, their worth as­sessed these days only by col­lec­tors, or pinned to the right breast of a sec­ond or third gen­er­a­tion rel­a­tive at a memo­rial on Ar­mistice Day.

As the Great War mem­ory con­tin­ues to re­cede, its defin­ing slo­gan the ‘war to end all wars’ re­mains counted only in a para­dox of num­bers.

AWARDS: The war medals nick­named, from left, Pip, Squeak and Wil­fred.

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