In the first of two articles to commemorate 100 years since its end, Andy Thompson reflects on WWI.
When the guns of WWI finally fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 Britain began to count the cost. Of the 6 million men who had been mobilised during the conflict, over 1 million lay dead on the battlefields of the world or in the oceans fought over by the navy and merchant seamen with the vast majority lying in shallow graves on the Western Front – a 100-mile strip of land winding through Belgium and Northern France.
In 1915 the British army had taken the decision that no man would be returned home but would be buried near to where they fell. In 1917 the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) was formed and tasked with giving those who had made the supreme sacrifice for their country a permanent resting place.
Belgium and France gave land to the British people ‘in perpetuity’ and during the 1920s, the 500,000 who could be found and identified were buried beneath a Portland headstone. The bodies that could be identified have a headstone with their name, rank and regiment, those bodies that could not be identified became ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God’ and their names were recorded on one of 28 memorials created to list the names of those ‘denied a burial given to their comrades in death’.
Whilst many family members made the personal pilgrimage to visit their loved ones before and after WWII it was the onset of fast channel crossings, the euro and the internet that generated a huge upsurge in visits to the hundreds of cemeteries in Flanders. The 100th anniversary commemorations organised between 2014-18 have seen unprecedented visitors from around the Commonwealth travelling to the battlefields, many remembering family members who died but many wanting to understand more of what happened in the mud, chaos and terror that was trench warfare.
Whilst the cemeteries dotted along the Western Front (the smallest 12, the largest 12,000) all tell a story, the centrepiece of pilgrimage for the British army was always going to be the Menin Gate. Most British soldiers marched out of the Belgian city of Ypres through the gate and hundreds of thousands did not return. The glutinous mud of the Ypres Salient had sucked thousands of men to their death where they remain to this day. To remember them it was agreed that memorials would be constructed with panels containing the list of names of the ‘Missing of the Salient’.
Almost 60,000 names are carved on the 60 panels on the gate, confirming the sheer scale of the loss from around the Empire. When the army finalised its list of those missing in the Ypres area in 1924 a further 47,000 names had to be added to two other memorials at Tyne Cot Cemetery and Ploegsteert.
The Menin Gate was unveiled on 24th July 1927 and buglers played the Last Post in ‘Memory of the Missing’. The city of Ypres decided to play the Last Post every day to remind the youth of Belgian the debt they owed the British army and on Wednesday 4th April this year, the buglers played the Last Post for the 30,000th time.
Whilst the Menin Gate became the main place of pilgrimage, each nation of the Commonwealth honours its dead where they fell. The Australians gather on 25th April at Villers-Bretonneux and at Gallipoli, the Canadians at Vimy Ridge on 9th April, the New Zealanders commemorate ANZAC Day on 25th April and the South Africans remember their sacrifice at Delville Wood on 1st July.
The Great War changed the world. H G Wells predicted, in 1914, that it would be ‘The war that will end war’ and the numbers reflected the colossal destruction of warfare on an industrial scale. The estimated casualty figure for all the 89 combatant nations was 41 million with 18 million being killed, millions more died in the Spanish Flu pandemic that swept the world between 1918-20.
Surrey suffered thousands of casualties with almost every community losing men, and in some cases, women. Some of the most powerful stories of the those killed were Surrey men. Dorking lad, Valentine Joe Strudwick (killed in January 1916) was only 15 when he was killed by a German sniper and is believed to be one of the youngest English casualties.
Henry Webber, a Horley man, was killed during the Battle of the Somme and at the age of 67 is believed to be the oldest casualty of all those killed during the war. Harry Farr (pictured left) was sent back to the front line the autumn of 1916 when he was very obviously suffering from shell shock. When he refused to march to the front line, he was shot by firing squad for cowardice. It was Harry Farr’s Farnham family who led the campaign to have those executed for desertion or cowardice pardoned and of the 346 shot at dawn, 306 were pardoned in 2006.
Andy Thompson is Chairman of the Surrey Branch of the Western Front Association. Call 01306 880960 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.