A Grim Chapter of History

In my last post I talked about our first app which we’ve just put up, on the Black Death. As it happens, I’m working on another grim product at the moment, a Topic TimeMap entitled the First World War. As you know, the centenary of this event is coming up, and so we at TimeMaps thought we’d better jump on the band wagon (it is our normal practice to completely miss such vehicles, not through choice but mistiming).

It’s a very sobering experience, writing about the First World War. I love history, I really do. There’s practically no historical topic that I can’t get enthusiastic about. But, in British history, there are two topics which I cannot approach without a certain sense of dread. One is the Slave Trade, and the other is World War 1. Not, oddly, World War 2 – why that is may be the subject for another post.

For ten years or so, until quite recently, almost every news bulletin here in the UK included news of one, two, maybe more, soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s been a soft but dismal drum beat accompanying our daily lives, even for those of us who have no relatives involved. For you Americans, it must have been worse, because the number of your servicemen and servicewomen lost in those wars has been larger than for us Brits.

But imagine: instead of a tally of 1, 2, maybe a dozen soldiers reported dead that day, it’s 10,000, 15,000, 20,000. Those are the numbers it would be if we were fighting a war on the scale of the First World War.

The litany is dreadful:

50,000 British killed and wounded at Loose, September 27th 1915

20,000 killed, 34,000 wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1st 1916 – the entire 5-month battle cost the British alone 350,000 killed and wounded: that’s more than the population of my nearest big city, Newcastle upon Tyne).

I’ll not go on.

Other countries suffered just as badly, if not worse: the French lost 550,000 men at Verdun.

It makes you wonder – who survived the horror? Thankfully, plenty of young men did – for example, those who would be the senior military officers who brought Britain through World War 2 (yes, they had to go through it all again!). And of course many, many others did, too: typical of such is one of my heroes, CS Lewis, who had no previous military experience but, after a short period of training found himself as an officer in charge of a company of troops at the front.

But, oh so many did not survive.

I’ll be glad when I can move on to another topic.


By Peter Britton