The Statistics of the “Great War”

Since today, 4th August 2014, is the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First War I thought I’d repost an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago which says very clear what I feel about the War that some people insist on calling “Great”…


Ten 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 concentrated fire from heavy machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by the artillery barrage that preceded the attack. The bombardment had been almost entirely ineffective, and it finished well before the British advance started, so the Germans had plenty of time to return to their positions and wait for the advancing British.

Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops over the top 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. The territory gained at such a heavy price was negligible.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue when peace returned in 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. Just 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.

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 a 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 or Afghanistan or Ukraine or Gaza as Flanders (1917).

Last night I listened to a broadcast of the Mozart Requiem on BBC Radio 3. Mozart  left this piece unfinished at his death. The performance was preceded by an interesting discussion about the subsequent completion by his student, Süssmayr, and the various alternatives including the one by Robert Levin we heard last night. Of course nobody will know exactly how Mozart intended this work to be completed because Mozart died before he was able to finish it. We’ll never know what the millions that died before their time during World War 1 would have achieved either. Among the lists of the dead and maimed  were great poets, artists, musicians, scientists and engineers but we’ll never know what they might have created because death had the last word.

I thought I’d end with a poem by, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth, 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.




9 Responses to “The Statistics of the “Great War””

  1. Your comment ‘the War that some people insist on calling “Great”’ suggests that you think ‘Great’ in ‘Great War’ means ‘good’. It doesn’t: as in ‘Great Britain’, it means ‘large in scale’, which I think is fairly indisputable.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Today the word is very ambiguous. Back then? Would we have called it the “great war” if we had lost, I wonder. Another phrase that brings you up short of this sort is “The Glorious Dead” written on the Cenotaph in London. I know exactly what they mean and I agree with that sentiment, but the dead aren’t glorious. They’re dead, their bodies lie broken in the mud of Flanders and so on. If the British thought war was fun in 1914, having (unlike Germany and France) spent much of the previous century pointing guns at people armed with spears, they certainly didn’t by 1918.

      Over the past 3 months I’ve watched the 26 episodes of the 1964 BBC TV series “The great war”. So far as information goes it’s no substitute for books, but books in their turn cannot begin to match the impact of actual film. I don’t think the BBC could make so good a series today, despite all the whizzy graphics. And all moving film of WW1 is in black and white, so the fact that the 1964 series was doesn’t matter.

      It is extraordinary that, 100 years later, there is still no consensus about where ultimate responsibility for the outbreak of this war should lie, and not much consensus about the tactics of sending men over the top of trenches directly into machine gun fire. The fact is that trenches were effective defence but there was no effective offensive tactic. So should both sides on the Western front have settled for stalemate? That would have given Belgium and a considerable slice of France over to the Germans. If we did not want that outcome then it was up to France and Britain to maintain the offensive. I am not saying it was right to send men over the top, but O what a dilemma. Our generals did not dare do it before conscription, which is telling. And the Somme was conceived as a sideshow to take pressure off Verdun, where the French lost even more men.

      Futility, all is futility.

      • The term ‘Great War’ was first used in 1914, long before anyone knew who was going to win. I’m totally with you on the futility of it all, but using the ‘Great’ of ‘Great War’ as a peg to hang sentiments about militarism and nationalism on is linguistically and historically incorrect.

      • telescoper Says:

        It’s worth mentioning that conscription was not introduced into the British Army until 1917, largely to replace disastrous losses on the Somme.

        Obviously the word “Great” is ambiguous in the context of the “Great War” which is precisely why I dislike using it.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Surely 1916 Peter?

        I understand that Westminster saw agonised debates about the morality of the State taking charge of the individual to that extent, even in the midst of such a terrible war. I think that is greatly to British credit compared to belligerents where conscription was regarded as unexceptional.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I also learned from the DVDs of that TV series why the tank is called the tank. It was described as a portable water tank to try to preserve security ahead of its first use. Certainly it was effective at Cambrai.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Yes, of course, the Military Service Bill was introduced in 1916, although it was a while before significant numbers joined the Army that way.

    I must have confused the date with the date when Arthur Stanley Eddington received his papers, which was (I think) in 1917.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Conscription was introduced several months before the suicidal human wave tactics of the Somme. Were conscripts a significant proportion of the men sent over the top in the first days of the Somme? I don’t know and would like to know. It’s the sort of detail that google doesn’t easily find, except perhaps for unreferenced chatrooms.

      • telescoper Says:

        The Bill was introduced in January 1916 and came into force in March the same year but I gather it took some time for the numbers recruited to get going. I’m not sure how long basic training lasted either; if was three months then it would be tough to get troops up to the front line in time for the first wave of the Somme offensive. I recall reading somewhere that conscripts were first used in large numbers later on, to replace the heavy losses on the Somme, but I don’t remember the reference.

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