A fact not often mentioned saw France lose 27,000 dead in one day at the Battle of Charleroi on August 22, 1914, just weeks into the war. THE COST - NO END TO WAR
It was called “The War to End All Wars.” It did not. They said it would all be over by Christmas of 1914. It was not. As we look back over more than 100 years to the beginning of World War I, the world may appear a different place and time from where we are now. It was, however, by the end of that conflict very different in 1918, from how it was in 1914. Empires fell, old countries ceased to exist, new states and borders came into being. Socially, culturally and politically the world was changed forever. All that in just over four years. It was not just the carnage inflicted on the battlefield, but the military action used to terrorise civilian populations that made this war different from what had gone before. It was the advances in the weapon, medical, transport and logistics systems and changes to the home front marking this conflict as “total war” as the civilian population had to support their armies and governments never like before with rationing and draconian legislation being used by their leaders to control media and society. The war began with cavalry still being seen as a mainstay of the combatant nations and apart from great use in the Middle East, in truth they were, along with the tactics used in their deployment, old, perhaps years before the war began. Battlefield tactics used until halfway through the war would see one side pound the other with artillery then send troops across the open areas of noman’s land with terrible consequences, as the side dug-in were able to spray their lethal lead accurately over a distance of more than 1km. The opening day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, saw the British army suffer an astounding almost 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded and most of that is thought to have occurred within the first few hours. A proud British officer scribbled in his diary “What a glorious day”. This sort of loses made civilians and governments question their generals. An entire generation from the countries taking part in the conflict was decimated. In Australia, we were a small nation of just less than five million, and yet we fielded an army that dwarfs the size of our current armed forces. We were the only country to go through the war without conscription - twice it was rejected in referendums in 1916 and 1917. More than 400,000 signed up to take part in the conflict, with losses of almost 62,000 and more than 156,000 wounded, gassed or captured. A look at a soldier’s record in the national archives will reveal on average most combatants were wounded or hospitalised at least twice if not three times during their service. There was not a family or community that was not affected by the war, from our big cities to the most isolated communities across this vast continent. We started the war in 1914 with zero budget deficit and by the end of that conflict we owed our creditors more than $7 billion by today’s standard and did not stop paying that debt until the 1970s.
On the home from when World War I began, it was uncommon for many women to have jobs, apart from domestic serving roles. The number of women working outside the home did increase slightly during the war but mostly in food, clothing, an printing industry jobs that were already established as female roles.
Women had to work harder than ever on farms when the men were away and if their husbands were killed or wounded they struggled to hold on to their livelihoods.
When the men did return, some not until 1920, they came home to a different world, one many could not understand and a population who could not comprehend what those men had seen and done.
The figures for deaths and injuries do not take into account the lot of the survivors, half whom were deemed to be medically unfit and were discharged.
Of those who did not get discharged more than 60 per cent applied for a pension: four out five men were damaged or disabled in some way.
The veterans of World War I were expected to come home and pick up their lives where they left them, for most this was impossible.
It thought that more than 500 men took their own lives in the years 1919 and 1920, a figure higher than this country’s death toll in the Vietnam War, 50 years later. Even then, it took us more than two decades to start helping the men and women who sufferer to this day with mental health issues.
But in 1918 psychiatry was something the rich dabbled with, for many of the diggers who came home comfort and solace was found at the bottom of a bottle.