‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, said Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, and it was true. It was the start of the bloodiest war there had ever been, with over eight million lives lost (from both sides) during the next four and a half years.
On Monday, we were asked to turn off our lights for an hour at 10pm, and put a single candle in our windows in memory of the moment when Britain declared war on Germany at 11pm on August 4th, 1914.
Many people did so. I looked out about 10.30pm, and my whole street was in darkness, apart from candles flickering in some windows. Public buildings also had their lights turned off, including Tower Bridge in London, and the Houses of Parliament.
You may also have seen photos of the thousands of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London. The red poppy became a symbol of the 1st World War, because of the poppies that grew on the battlefields even in the midst of all the slaughter.
Why did a war that took place a hundred years ago have such an effect on today’s society? Maybe it was because everyone living today knows of a relative who served in that awful war. Some survived, but so many were killed. There are war memorials in every city and town, and in many villages and churches too, commemorating those who died. The UK lost over 700,000 men, about 100,000 more than died in the American Civil War, and of course all those men came from a much smaller area than the American states.
It’s said that every family was affected by the war in some way. My own immediate family lost one member, my grandfather’s youngest brother who was killed in 1918, aged only 20. We visited his grave about 4 years ago, the first members of his family ever to do so, as far as I know. Two other great uncles survived – one was gassed and had lung problems all his life, another was in a tank that was blown up – and lived with shrapnel in his body ever after (and, it was discovered in the 1950s, a bullet lodged near his heart too).
I’ve been to many of the 1st World War battlefields, and also to some of the hundreds of war cemeteries that are scattered throughout France and Belgium, some large, some small with maybe 100 or so graves. Most poignant are the many graves marked ‘A Soldier of the Great War’, which contain bodies that could not be identified. On the walls of the large cemeteries at Tyne Cot (in Belgium) and Thiepval (in the Somme area), as well as the Menin Gate in Ypres, are inscribed the thousands of names of those who have no known grave, whose bodies were never identified – or in some cases, never even found.
What has all this to do with writing? Nothing, really, except that I have read novels (and seen movies) that purport to show this war e.g. the pretty young nurse meeting the injured soldier, etc – you know the kind of thing – sanitized, romantized, and so far removed from the reality.
Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong has become a classic with his description of trench warfare, but, if you want to know what it was really like, read The Mad Game (William’s Story) by Chris Cherry. It’s not an easy read, but it really does portray the horrors faced by the men who fought from the trenches. You can read my review here – and Chris’ response too. I don’t know Chris personally, but in my opinion, he got right.