On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one hundred years ago, the Armistice came into effect and the guns fell silent after four years of horror. The Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’, was over and the survivors of the conflict would be able to come home. In fact, we have known not one year of peace since that date.
No-one knows how many would never come home from the Great War. Between military and civilian deaths, it is estimated that over twenty-three million people died. World War Two, a generation later, would claim the lives of somewhere between seventy and eighty-five million people. Of those who survived, not all came home whole. None would return unchanged. Many lost limbs, sight, health and hearing. Many minds were overturned by horror.
“We were in the trenches. I was so cold I went out (and took shelter in a farm house). They took me to prison so I will have to go in front of the court. I will try my best to get out of it, so don’t worry.”
Private Abe Bevistein, aged 16, to his mother, just before he was executed by firing squad for deserting his post in WWI. He had been on the front line for a month when a grenade exploded next to him and he went to the rear to seek help. A medical officer said that he was fit to return to fighting, but he wandered off. Bevistein was one of 306 executed in this way, many of whom would today have been recognised as suffering from PTSD. Over eighty thousand were diagnosed with shell shock.
To speak in millions almost dehumanises the scale of the loss and grief. It is difficult to see individuals in such vast figures. To think in terms of the entire population of most countries still leaves it too impersonal. You have to look closer to home.
There are around sixteen thousand villages in England alone and only forty-one of them are ‘Thankful Villages’ who saw all their children return from the Great War. My village was not one of them. I live in a small, English village of around six hundred households. It is a rural village, surrounded by farm land, as peaceful a place as you could find. Many of the families who live here have done so for generations and many of those family names are inscribed on the village war memorial and in the Roll of Honour.
“We went up into the front line near Arras, through sodden and devastated countryside. As we were moving up to our sector along the communication trenches, a shell burst ahead of me and one of my platoon dropped. He was the first man I ever saw killed. Both his legs were blown off and the whole of his body and face was peppered with shrapnel. The sight turned my stomach. I was sick and terrified but even more frightened of showing it.”
Victor Silvester, later known as a bandleader and musician, lied about his age to join up in 1914. He said he was of age, but was only fourteen. He was sent to Arras and, while he was there, was ordered to take part in five executions by firing squad. These executions haunted him for the rest of his life.
Although I come from a military family, I find no sense in war, in sending human beings to maim and slaughter each other in a vain attempt to fight out political and ideological differences that will only be resolved at the negotiating table. But that takes nothing away from my respect for those who serve their country when called. Individual acts of heroism, sacrifice and gallantry are not lessened by my opinion of war-mongers. The lives of the men, women, children and animals who gave their lives, had them taken from them, or who waited, worked and grieved, deserve to be remembered. Every single one of them, regardless of which country called them to service.
In my search to humanise the unthinkable numbers of war, I looked up the names of those who died from my own birthplace. My roots are not here in the village, I am a city girl by birth, though where I was born, now a suburb, was once a village too. Like all villages and communities here, it has its own war memorial and today it bears the names of the seven hundred and forty-six local people who have fallen in conflicts from 1900 to 2011.
Even those numbers were too big, so I visited the war memorial in the village where I live to pay my respects and walked to the church to read the Roll of Honour. I know there is at least one stained glass window dedicated to a young man who died in the Great War, and the St George above the door was placed there by the brother of another lost soldier. Although the church is closed for repair, I found the village Roll of Honour online and read each name.
From this one small village, a hundred and seventy-nine men went to serve in the Great War. In a village of a mere few hundred households, that must have made a huge impact. Forty-six men were killed. Another fifty-nine were unable to return to work after the war. Many of the men who returned would see their own sons go to war just a few years later.
The youngest to die were teenagers. Thomas Biswell, for example, was only eighteen. He lived in the Rothschilds Cottages, just a few doors away from my home. His father was a gardener. Thomas was killed in action in 1917 and his name is carved on the Menin Gate in Belgium. Leonard Evans was just eighteen too. His parents, Gertrude and David, lived in the High Street. His father was a mechanical engineer. Leonard was killed in France in 1918.
William and Sophia Fowler lost at least two of their sons as well as two other members of the family. Their boys had grown up just around the corner, a few paces from my home. The eldest of the men who served were in their forties. Another fifteen died in WWII.
I will remember them, from the oldest to the youngest, in the hope that one day, the human race may mature enough to find another way.
“We did hear that they were fetching all back from France under 19. For goodness sake Horace tell them how old you are, I am sure they will send you back if they know you are only 16. You have seen quite enough now just chuck it up and try to get back. You won’t fare no worse for it. If you don’t do it now you will come back in bits and we want the whole of you.”
Extract from a letter from Florrie to her brother, Horace Iles. Horace was a big lad, and it is thought he had been given a white feather for cowardice in the street by someone who thought him old enough to fight. He lied about his age and joined the Leeds Pals, a battalion formed of workmates and neighbours as part of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was just fourteen. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, after two years’ active service. The battle claimed the lives of 750 of the 900 Leeds Pals who were there. Horace never read Florrie’s letter. It was returned to her unopened, marked, ‘killed in action’.