The Fallen – Forgotten?
THE gravestones of John Parr and George Ellison lie just over six metres apart at the First World War cemetery near Saint-Symphorien, around 30 miles south west of Brussels.
Yet between them lay four years of war and three quarters of a million British dead.
As well as the making of the modern world.
Visiting our Grandad’s house one day when we were little, his screams when he woke up were so frightening that my brother and I ran to get help. Neither of us liked the horrible thing he had on his face, the hissing noise, nor the big cylinder that stood next to his chair in the parlour.
Mum told us that he’d been gassed during the Great War and that on some days, he needed oxygen to be able to breathe.
“What does gassed mean?” was our question, but I don’t think we really understood her answer. We we just scared of him.
Now approaching the age he was back then, this seems so unfair. Yet at the time we couldn’t know what horrors haunted Grandad’s dreams, over 40 years after the First World War had ended.
Lest we forget
Our family wasn’t unique, nor special even. That war reached into millions of lives, casting its awful shadow down the generations.
The death toll of the First
World War is so large it defies understanding. But if the numbers of British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme were to happen in our Borough, we’d all be gone in just eight days.
That battle’s British leader was General Sir Douglas Haig. The same General Haig who in 1925 said that ‘the opportunity for the horse in future [was] likely to be as great as ever … aeroplanes and tanks … were only accessories’.
That the memories of the First World War have lasted so long is down to many factors.
At first it was the wreath laying ceremonies with veterans, civic and military leaders, together with the works of the war poets and war artists. To this was soon added the war memorials and war graves, often with lists of the locals who’d lost their lives along with the remembrance poppy.
Today, we know it as Remembrance Sunday, the nearest Sunday to armistice day, 11th November 1918, along with the twominute silence at 11am as a mark of respect and tribute to the moment the guns fell silent – as well as to all who fell in subsequent conflicts.
An unknown soldier
Memories of Grandad came to mind when tidying up our Mum’s things after she passed away in 2013.
One otherwise unremarkable square envelope, postmarked
1921 and marked On His Majesty’s Service, caught my attention – not so much for its appearance but for its heaviness. Opening it, I found another envelope along with a thin square of heavy cardboard with four triangular flaps covering whatever lay inside.
Those flaps revealed a bronze medallion – far larger than a medal and with a man’s name in raised letters. The message on the paper inside the other envelope was from the King and it read:
“I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War.”
The inscription around the medallion said simply
“He died for freedom and honour”
It was the memorial plaque sent in memory of a man who’d given his life a century ago. A man we’d never known, nor even knew anything about, yet the feeling of sorrow for that unknown soldier’s passing cut just as keenly and as sharply as if he’d died yesterday.
The legacy of The Fallen
A century has now passed.
Far from being the “war to end war” as was said at the time, French revanchism (revenge) in the Versailles peace treaty led to the economic instability that John Maynard Keynes predicted, then inexorably to the Second World War just 20 years later.
Far from being a conflict of total futility with “lions led by donkeys” as captured and caricatured in Blackadder Goes Forth, the First World War accelerated many developments that we benefit from today.
WORLD POLITICS: By the end of WW1, the four biggest empires had disappeared: the Russian empire through revolution; the Austro-Hungarian empire through economic collapse; the Ottoman empire through Turkish and Arab independence; the German Empire through abdication of the Kaiser. The inequality of rule by the few was changing as nations replaced empires.
BRITISH POLITICS: During WW1 you could die for your country, but you couldn’t vote for it. This started changing in 1918 to include men aged 18+ and women aged 30+, but it took until 1928 for women to gain electoral equality and until 1969 for voting age to match conscription.
ECONOMICS: little seemed to change, save that the war economies were replaced by planned economies (state control) and the recognition and growth of trade unions. National debts became the paramount threat to stability.
SOCIAL: The slaughter of the aristocracy at roughly twice the rate of everyman thinned the ranks of the rulers and the old ways of rank and heredity gave way to a more egalitarian society based on educational and economic merit.
TECHNOLOGY: Powered vehicles of all types and sizes were transformed. The fledglings of
1913, barely able to keep a person flying for more than a few minutes, evolved into the aircraft that made the first non-stop transatlantic flight in 1919. Cars changed from the toys of the rich to the tools of the well-off. Radio changed from being unheard of to becoming commonplace, as the broadcast media began to take off.
HEALTH: Huge leaps in sanitation, surgery, medicine and then psychiatry all stemmed from a reaction to the appalling conditions in the trenches. Plastic and orthopaedic surgery were driven by the need to reconstruct those mutilated by war. Nursing was transformed from the preserve of the few – employing just hundreds in 1914, to an organised profession – employing tens of thousands by 1918, such was the contribution of nurses to soldiers’ recovery.
Take away any one of these and life today would be far different, much shorter or more unpleasant - the true legacy of those who went to ‘do their bit’ in the First World War.
They gave their lives and by so doing, gave us ours.
As did their sons and daughters.