The First World War is deeply dug into the consciousness of the British. The images it conjures up are of blood, barbed wire, shell holes filled with dead bodies; of subalterns with wispy moustaches who never had the chance to grow old; of soldiers with faces vacant from shell-shock; of great aunts who never married. The army that fought this war represented the greatest collective endeavour of the whole of British history. Over 5 million men served, almost 1 million lost their lives and over 2 million were wounded. As the war continued, these men drifted away from the land that had raised them, and lived in a world with its own rules, values, beliefs and language. They celebrated the armistice in silence, not with wild rejoicing, then went home to pick up their lives.
One veteran proudly affirmed that Tommy Atkins – the full private – was, when all is said and done, the one who won this war. He won it by sheer dogged pluck. Tommy had a habit of going into place a thousand strong and coming out a remnant of a hundred or so. Dead men tell no tales of their own glory.
The Great War – The War to End All Wars – finally ends. The Armistice is signed at 11am, 11th November 1918
The First World War was of course not the largest single event of World history; that ghastly honour must go to the Second World War, which in terms of human suffering and material destruction was infinitely worse for the World as a whole. But for Great Britain alone the First World War caused more casualties, which partly accounts for the fact that it is remembered in a particular way in this Country.
Even today there are areas scarred with unexploded bombs and ammunition dumps and the soil and water is still 100 years later poisoned by chemical waste.
I’d ask you to take two minutes to quietly consider; approximately 8 million men were killed in the First World War and 20 million were wounded, some of them many times. Remember too the homes, businesses, farms and whole communities – non-combatants who through no fault of their own war found in its way - that were obliterated. There were refugee crises and epidemics and in eastern Europe there was mass starvation as the old empires disintegrated. On top of this an estimated 100 million people died worldwide as a result of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, Spanish Flu, while many men were prematurely aged or debilitated after years of war service.
Physical injuries sustained in the conflict were often life-changing and traumatic. Young men returned home blind, disfigured or with missing limbs.
There were psychological scars too. In Great Britain alone more than 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock and the numbers grew after the Armistice due to the long-term effects of combat trauma.
"The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." - Sir Edward Grey
“The War was decided in the first twenty days of fighting, and all that happened afterwards consisted in battles which, however formidable and devastating, were but desperate and vain appeals against the decision of Fate.” - Winston Churchill
"If the women in the factories stopped work for twenty minutes, the Allies would lose the war." - French Field Marshal Joffre
"In no circumstances whatever will the expression 'shell-shock' be used verbally or be recorded in any regimental or other casualty report, or in any hospital or other medical document." - British army General Routine Order No. 2384, issued on 7 June 1917 issued in France
"They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." - Edith Louisa Cavell, 4 December 1865 - 12 October 1915, a British nurse, humanitarian and spy. She is celebrated for helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German - occupied Belgium during World War I, for which she was arrested. She was court-martialled, found guilty of treason and executed.
"They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them or the years condemn." - Lawrence Binyon
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