by Andy Smith, MS&T Publisher & Jeremy Humphreys, Director. Business Development
November 11th 1918 marks the end of the First World War or the 1914-18 war, known at the time as the ‘War to end all Wars.’ Regrettably that did not prove to be the case and conflict continues today.
While we at MS&T appreciate and support our armed forces and their role in securing the peace as well as in combat, we also need to remind ourselves of the cost when those in power get it wrong. That said, it is highly appropriate we remember and mourn all those whose lives were lost and/or ruined by this ghastly conflict, and those conflicts that followed it.
Armistice Day (Armistice de la Première Guerre mondiale) in France remembers those who died or were injured in World War I and other wars. It is generally a solemn occasion with church services and wreath laying. People stop work and observe a minute of silence. Interestingly, the French wear cornflowers in place of poppies*. “Le bleuet de France” recognises the blue cornflowers that grew on the shell torn battle fields in other sectors of the line as the red poppies grew in Flanders. Le bleuet also recalls the colour of the uniforms of the Poilu (WW1 French infantry soldier) which were produced in horizon blue fabric before 1915.
The term bleuet was immortalized in the 1916 Alphonse Bourgoin poem, “Les Bleuets de France” which rather tragically recalls:
These here, these little “Bleuets”
These Bleuets the colour of the sky,
Are beautiful, gay, stylish,
Because they are not afraid.
Merrily, go forward
Go on, my friends, so long!
Good luck for you, little “blues”
Little “bleuets,” you are our hope!
(Translation from Wikipedia)
World War I cost France 1,357,800 dead, 4,266,000 wounded (of whom 1.5 million were permanently maimed) and 537,000 made prisoner or missing —73% of the 8,410,000 men mobilized, according to William Shirer in “The Collapse of the Third Republic”.
Germany does not celebrate Armistice Day as such. Instead they celebrate Volkstrauertag (German for “people’s day of mourning”) which is a public holiday in Germany two Sundays before the first day of Advent (ie mid-November) timed to coincide with the end if the liturgical year, a time traditionally devoted to thoughts of death, time and eternity. These days it commemorates members of the German armed forces and civilians who died in armed conflicts, to include victims of violent oppression. It was first observed in its modern form in 1952 and involves speeches, processions, wreath laying and the singing of the song “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden” (“I had a comrade”).
Estimates of German casualties vary due to incomplete records. A summary complied by the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service, lists 1,773,700 German war dead, 4,216,058 wounded, 1,152,800 prisoners, for a total of 7,142,558 casualties, 54.6% of the 13,000,000 soldiers Germany mobilized for the war.
The populations of France and Germany both were around 40 million in 1914. The British army started the war 400,000 strong with half of an all-volunteer force deployed around the Empire. By the end of the war 4.9m soldiers had served, a mix of volunteers and conscripts. A total of 885,000 lost their lives and 1,663,000 were wounded from a total population of 45.4m. The small regular army was almost destroyed in the first months of the war with a second army of volunteers, Kitchener’s Army, being devastated in the battles of 1915 and 1916. The maximum strength of the British Army peaked at 3.82m by the end of 1918.
The British Indian army started WW1 with 240,000 men which rose through volunteer recruitment to 550,000 by the end of the war. In total more than 1,000,000 Indians served overseas in all theatres (700,000 in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Turks), of whom up to 62,000 died and a similar number were recorded as wounded. Including service at home defending the NW Frontier 74,187 Indian soldiers died during WW1. (Wikipedia).
Some Indians in the UK celebrate Poppy day on 11-11 this becoming more common as the role and numbers of Indian service personnel serving in British wars over the centuries rises in the public consciousness maybe as a push back against the association of some people from the subcontinent with terrorism. In India since 2017 Veterans day is on January 14th (15th in 2018) coinciding with Army Day which marks the appointment of the first Indian CinC (as against British CinC) of the Indian Army in 1949.
619,636 Canadians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the war, and approximately 424,000 served overseas. Of these men and women, 59,544 died and another 172,000 were wounded. An astonishing number given the population of just under eight million in 1914 (www.warmuseum.ca).
For Australia, the First World War remains the costliest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner (www.awm.gov.au).
From a population of 1.1 million New Zealand suffered 18,050 military deaths and 41,317 wounded (www.centre-robert-schuman.org)
Like the British, the US forces at the start of the war were pitifully small compared to the continental powers. When the US declared war in April 1917 total amry strength was 127,000; by the end of the war 4m had enlisted in the US Army, with 2m deployed, and 800,000 served in the other branches of the military. Total deaths were 116,708 and wounded at 205,690 from a total population of 92m.
These figures exclude the awful toll faced by Italy, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, the Ottoman Empire and other nations as well as the 8m estimated civilian deaths directly attributable to the war. They also exclude the flu epidemic of 1918 that carried off millions more.
For more facts and figures this is a useful resource: http://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/
*Editor’s note: Although the association between fields of poppies and commemorating the war dead predates the First World War, the war-poppies connection was popularised by WWI and by this John McCrae poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’.
John McCrae (1872-1918), a Canadian lieutenant colonel, was inspired to write it after he conducted the burial service for an artillery officer, Alexis Helmer, who had been killed in the conflict. In summary, the poem observes how poppies blow in the fields where the fallen soldiers (including Helmer) are buried.
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.