The centenary this year, 2014, of the beginning of the first world war in 1914 is being formally marked by the UK Government.
With its partners [including the Imperial War Museums, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission], the government plans to build an appropriate memorial to what was described at the time – by author, HG Wells – as ‘the war to end war’.
This war ended up mobilising arund 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans. Of this number, it spent no fewer than 16.5 million to 30 million lives.It saw naval warfare of great scale and competence, with the British Navy reformed and re-equipped with modern battleships by arguably the most talented, controversial and influential of all of the British admirals – Jacky Fisher.
Far from ending war, the second world war which followed this one only 21 years later, remains the most expensive war in history in terms of human life – costing 60.67 million to 84.59 million lives.
However, the second most life expensive war came a great deal earlier than both. It was the long progression of the Mongol Conquests, running from 1206–1324 and costing 30 million to 60 million lives. Historian Brian Landers said that: ‘The Mongols brought terror to Europe on a scale not seen again until the twentieth century’ – in these two world wars.
Wars within the war
The sheer upheaval of the first world war saw several nations also experience internal revolution during the timespan of the greater conflict, as with:
- the Irish Revolution, starting with the Easter Rising against the occupying English in 1916, leadng to the Irish War of Independence immediately after the Great war- from 1919-1921; to the Irish Civil War from 1922-1923; and finally confirmed the partition of the island;
- the Russian Revolutions of 1917, including the February and October Revolutions, which grew from a state of mutiny in the Russian Army, following serious setbacks and heavy losses during World War 1. This period ended up with the replacement of the Tsarist system by the Bolsheviks, after Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. This was succeeded by the civil war between the Reds and the Whites that saw the birth of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR] which collapsed at the end of the century.
A very particular war
Is is the unremitting attrition of the trench warfare that is characteristic of the first world war, added to the living access by family seniors today to those who fought it that war and to the level of detail recorded about it that have together raised the Great War to the particular preeminence it has in our cultural memory.
Everything from the sheer scale of lives lost in its many fields of battle, to the impact on communities across Britain which lost virtually all of their menfolk in the mass destruction suffered by so many of the so-called the Pals brigades.
These were special units of the British Army., composed of men from one area who were recruited on the promise that they could serve together, as fathers and sons, brothers, friends and colleagues rather than be dispersed across the spectrum of regular army regiments.
This had the advantage of importing strong morale on the back of existing relationships and community self-support. But when any if these units were wiped out in conflict, as several were, it left the communities they came from utterly bereft and in serious gender imbalance without fathers, brothers and sons.
The Accrington Pals and the Ulster Volunteer Force, many in the 36th Ulster Division, were two of the headline Pals units to suffer such mass destruction.
It seems initially odd to commemorate the start rather than the conclusion of a war but it creates an interesting fusion of beginnings and ends – because from our own 21st century vantage point, we know of both so we see the picture in a strange sort of stereo.
What we can do in 2014 in Argyll to mark this centenary
For Argyll is inviting readers to submit material on their local war memorials in Argyll and the Isles, erected in memory of those in their area who fell in the Great War.
We include in the notional area of Argyll and the Isles the historical territory of Argyll; the Argyll islands in the Clyde and on the west coast; and the local authority area of Argyll and Bute.
We would like lucid photographs of the memorial itself, in its location; with photographs of the legible names of all of those who died in World War 1, recorded on the memorial.
Along with these – and the name of the contributor, we would like:
- a note on the location and nature , then and now, of the community whose war memorial is being recorded;
- the physical location in the community of the memorial;
- a note on any particular matters of interest around any of those named on the memorial.
Contributors are welcome to add any additional photographs, notes and narratives they know to be important in the ‘story’ they are recording.
Commonwealth War Graves are amongst the memorials of enduring interest.
For Argyll will undertake to publish each of the records submitted to us as they come in; and will create an enduring online presence for the collection.
We know that this initiative is unlikely to reach to every single memorial from the Great War across Argyll and the Isles – but the more that we can collectively bring together in one place, the more we will respect the purpose of this commemorative year; retrieve from time those who fell in that grim conflict; and weave by ourselves and for ourselves a valuable fabric of Argyll’s contribution in blood and loss to a conflict that continues to defy imagination.
The image above is soldiers in a communications trench on the first day of the battle of the Somme – and is in the public domain,