Statistics

Not many summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror. When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too. Some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial. On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into heavy fire from machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by an artillery barrage that had been tragically ineffective. Rather than calling off the attack in the face of this slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle in November that year the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The material loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue after 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. A year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

The First World War ended a long time ago, and there is now only one living survivor of the British trenches, but the tragedy that it was shouldn’t be forgotten and neither should the sacrifices made by those caught up in the slaughter. Every year, we have Remembrance Sunday (which passed yesterday) for which it is traditional to wear a poppy after John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep,
though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And tomorrow morning, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – when the guns fell silent 90 years ago – I will stand (as I always do) for the two minutes of silence observed across the country. Some people consider the wearing of a poppy and the observance of the two minutes’ silence to be celebrations of militarism. I don’t. I wear mine with respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice (on both sides, including non-combatants, and in all wars not just the “Great” one). As their deaths recede into the past, these rituals are needed to stop us seeing them as mere statistics. Each name on the war memorial at Buxton represents a human life extinguished and is evidence of the capacity for inhumanity which we all possess and from which we must not be allowed to hide.

For me the poppy also symbolises anger for those whose arrogance and mendacity has led us into wars that we should have avoided. I thank my lucky stars that I never had to live through conflict on the scale my grandparents’ generation had to face and curse those who have inflicted that fate on others. I quote another great First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon (writing here in prose) whose words are as apt today as they were ninety years ago:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. On behalf of all those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception that is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

That could just as easily have been written about Iraq (2003) as Flanders (1917).

Benjamin Britten was the reason I went to Buxton that day in 2004 so its only fitting I should mention the moving performance of his War Requiem I listened to yesterday on the radio. This is a powerful work that interleaves the latin mass for the dead with poetry from the greatest of all the war poets, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth , which is set right at the beginning of the War Requiem, the references in the poem to church services adding tragic irony to his already powerful verse.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen died in battle in 1918, aged 25, just a week before the armistice was signed. Another statistic.

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9 Responses to “Statistics”

  1. […] Läs också Peter Coles synnerligen välskrivna betraktelse över betydelsen av Remembrance Day: Statistics […]

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Buxton is 30 minutes by car from the drab outer Manchester suburb where I grew up. It was a fashionable 18th century spa town and consequently has glorious Georgian architecture set amid the beauty and drama of the Peak District – a unique combination. In 1988 I saw a rather poor opera by Haydn there, soon after the opera house had been restored.

    Opinion continues to differ over sending our troops ‘over the top’ in World War I to face machine guns and be slaughtered. Plenty of officers led those charges and they were among the first to die, so it wasn’t a class thing. There was an obvious lack of imagination high up in the British army, which had spent the previous 50 years firing machine guns at people armed with spears, whereas France and Germany had fought the Franco-Prussian war with modern weaponry only a generation before. But I think a key factor is conscription. To British credit, we did not have compulsory conscription when the war started, whereas our enemy did – showing that we saw the State as serving the population rather than vice-versa. Our generals and politicians did not dare treat a volunteer army like “cattle” – they started doing that only after conscription was introduced in Britain.

    In fairness, the heavy packs our men carried over the top were minimum kit needed to take AND HOLD ON TO an enemy trench in the face of counter-attack. And the orders to march in formation against guns were because of chaos when free running had been tried. So: was it OK after all to send our men over the top?

    No, I don’t think so. The parallel sets of trenches, German and Franco-British, represented a stalemate that emerged as the consequence of a digging race – the inevitable response of men to machine guns in those circumstances. That race was itself inevitable after the first month of the war, once Germany’s ‘Schlieffen’ plan to blitzkrieg France (just) failed on the Marne. Those weeks are often forgotten today, but Winston churchill described the first month of hostilities as an “unparalleled human drama” and if you read Barbara Tuchman’s book “the Guns of August” about it then you won’t be able to put it down. Anyway, my view is that we should not have sent our men over the top in view of the casualty rates – we should have sought other ways to break the stalemate, even if it took longer.

    If you dobut this, go to the Somme and walk amid the neat mass graveyards placed about every mile along the smallest country lanes.

  3. You’re right that the army was composed of volunteers until 1917, but I think that probably heightened the impact of wartime losses on small towns like Buxton. So many men of such similar ages joined “friends” regiments that were often obliterated on a very short timescale.

    I once read an article – I can’t remember where – about the curious belief that barbed wire could be cut by an artillery bombardment. Apparently there never was any evidence that this actually happened, and although the initial attacks on the Somme were preceded by an exceptionally heavy barrage the barbed wire was virtually intact on the morning of July 1st. To make matters worse the timing of the “over the top” was delayed giving the Germans plenty of time to return from their bunkers and man the machine gun positions, knowing full well that the weight of artillery shells indicated an imminent attack.

    You are right about the casualties. The shortest life-expectancy in World War I was not that of a private soldier, but of a platoon commander (usually a lieutenant). These were the first over the top, often armed only with a pistol. I think the casualty rate was much more age-dependent than class dependent, with the young getting by far the worst deal.

    Anyway, the losses incurred in set-piece battles like the Somme also tend to draw attention away from the generally attritional way that war was fought, many dying of illness and disease caused by the terrible living conditions in the trenches.

    I haven’t been to the Somme but I once went with a friend who is in a choir to Verdun, where he sang in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem not far from the Ossuary at Douaumont where the shattered and unidentifiable remains of at least 130,000 soldiers lie. The performance was very moving, even though I was later told that many of the choir found themselves completely choked with emotion and unable to sing.

    • One thing I forgot to say is that the author of the poem “In Flanders Fields”, the Canadian John McCrae, was an army doctor who served on the western front. He died in January 1918, of pneumonia.

  4. […] wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war about this time last year, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about […]

  5. […] approve. I’ve already said everything I think I need to on this in posts last year and the year before, so I won’t repeat myself at length […]

  6. […] Day. I’ve posted about my thoughts about this time of year before (see, for example, here and here). Rather than say it all again, therefore, I decided to post a poem by the greatest poet […]

  7. […] wrote about my reaction to the horror and futility of war some time ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself except to say that, to me, the poppy is not about […]

  8. […] that the Sherwood Foresters were involved in the Battle of the Somme in 1916; I wrote about it here. Their script is very polished and an excellent ensemble cast keeps the show cracking along in […]

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