This blog is dedicated to Lance Corporal Danny Sherman (Ret.) of the Household Cavalry and the millions of British and Allied soldiers alive and dead who have dedicated (and in many cases given) their lives fighting for King, Queen and country. From all at Liquid, we thank you for the service you’ve given and continue to give.
This week marks the centenary of the end of World War I.
It was a brutal, horrifying, bloody, tiring, gruesome conflict fought over four years from July 1914 to November 1918 by clever, calculating generals and strategists for whom no cost was deemed too high.
For the very first time in the history of human warfare, this conflict was recorded in exacting detail on paper and uniquely, via the mediums of photography and film.
It was a war of numbers. Quantity was the differentiator. More men, more food and more ammunition meant the difference between resounding victory and crushing defeat. There were more men killed, more bombs dropped and more bullets fired than in any war ever fought previously.
There was a reason it was called The Great War.
However, from the darkest of clouds comes a silver lining and there are tales of heroism that as we sit staring at screens, debating how many shots to have in our morning Starbucks and what Itsu salad to have for lunch, we can barely comprehend.
World War I In Numbers
To understand the sheer brutality of the war, it’s important to try and get your head around the staggering numbers:
- Around the world, 70 million men from over 30 countries (60 million Europeans) were mobilised to fight, from the trenches of the Western Front to the deserts of Africa and the Middle East
- According to historian Dan Snow who put together a fascinating tale of survival in the trenches for the BBC, over five million Brits served
- Around 8.5 million soldiers died (some sources put the total number of dead military personnel as high as 15 million) including 750,000 British servicemen
- 21 million troops were wounded of whom 1.5 million were British
- It’s estimated that two million servicemen died from disease, malnutrition and other causes
- Approximately 13 million civilians were killed
- Including the wounded, the total number of military and civilian casualties is an eye-watering 40 million people
- Such was the fervour to fight, 762,000 Britons enlisted in the first month of the war
- 980,000 ‘war horses’ were shipped to Europe from America
- The life expectancy of a WWI pilot was as short as 15 flight-hours
- 250,000 boys under the legal age of 19 for armed services overseas signed up, lying on their forms. The youngest of which, Sydney George Lewis who enlisted in the East Surrey Regiment and who fought at the Battle of the Somme, was just 12 (he died in 1969 after serving in the police force, as a bomb disposal expert in WWII and running a pub in East Sussex!)
- In one day of fighting in 1918, the cost of bullets alone was £3.8m (today, £237.5 million)
To us, in the 21st century, these numbers are scarcely believable.
Fighting the Turkish Ottoman Empire during the Gallipoli Campaign between February 1915 and January 1916 resulted in 552,000 casualties.
July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme remains to this day the worst day in British military history. Our forces suffered 57,500 casualties including 19,240 dead.
Between 31st July and 10th November 1917 there were over 850,000 casualties during the Battle of Passchendaele.
We repeat, scarcely believable.
From Darkness Came Light…
It’s hard to fathom that from the seemingly endless slaughter on an unprecedented scale, there are tales of extraordinary bravery and heroism of men and women who overcame unsurmountable odds and who are rightly remembered as heroes.
Here are some of them…
William Edward ‘Billy’ Sing DCM (2nd March 1886 – 19th May 1943)
Billy Sing was born in Queensland, Australia to a Chinese father and an English mother. As a boy he was renowned for his marksmanship skills and two months after war broke out, he enlisted as a trooper in the 5th Light Horse Regiment of the Australian Imperial Force.
During the Gallipoli Campaign, he was best known as a sniper and took at least 150 confirmed kills (contemporary sources have subsequently put that number at closer to 300). He was known as ‘The Assassin’ or ‘The Murderer’ and one of his ‘spotters’, Australian writer Ion ‘Jack’ Idriess described him as ‘a little chap, very dark, with a jet black moustache and goatee beard. A picturesque looking mankiller. He is the crack shot of the Anzacs.’
Alvin Cullum York (13th December 1887 – 2nd September 1964)
Born into a devoutly Christian farming family in rural Tennessee, Corporal York (oddly nicknamed Sergeant York) was a heavy-drinking brawler who initially claimed conscientious objector status on the grounds that his religious denomination forbade violence. He was persuaded that his religious beliefs were in fact compatible with military service and he joined the 82nd Division of the US Army and went to France in 1918.
During the US-led part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which was intended to breach the Hindenburg Line forcing the Germans into surrender, he led an attack on a German machine gun position. He took at least one gun, killed at least 25 soldiers and captured a further 132. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest and most prestigious personal military decoration and earned further decorations from France, Italy and Montenegro.
Edith Louisa Cavell (4th December 1865 – 12th October 1915)
The daughter of a vicar, Edith Cavell was born in Norwich and became a nurse after caring for her sick father. Widely considered to be a pioneer of modern nursing, she ended up working in Brussels and after the German occupation of the Belgian capital in November 1914 she began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of Belgium and into the Netherlands.
As a nurse she didn’t discriminate and saved the lives of soldiers from both sides but for her role in helping over 200 Allied soldiers escape Belgium, she was arrested. At her court-martial, she was accused of treason, found guilty and sentenced to death. Despite an international outcry for a pardon, she was executed by a German firing squad. The night before, she said ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone, ‘ words inscribed on her memorial near Trafalgar Square.
Aníbal Augusto Milhais GOTE (9th July 1895 – 3rd June 1970)
A farmer-cum-solider who was drafted into the Infantry of Bragança and mobilised to join the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps, he arrived in France in 1917 and became the most heroic soldier ever to wear the uniform of the Portuguese Army.
During the first few hours of the bloody Battle of Estaires in April 1918 despite being surrounded by 7,000 dead and wounded, Milhais stayed in his position and laid down machine-gun fire in all directions to cover the retreats of the Portuguese and Scots until his ammo ran out. After hiding behind enemy lines for three days and rescuing a Scottish doctor from drowning, they both made it back to the British position. Months later, he did the same, single-handedly holding back a German assault with his Lewis gun (which he called ‘Louisa’) while a Belgian unit retreated.
Portuguese Major Ferreira do Amaral said that his actions ‘were worth a million men’ and he became known as ‘Soldado Milhoes’ or ‘Soldier Millions.’ He is the only Portuguese soldier in history to have been awarded the highest national honour, the Military Order of the Tower and of the Sword, of Valour, Loyalty and Merit on the battlefield.
These men and women, and thousands like them who performed remarkable acts of valour and bravery, often disregarding their own safety for the protection of others, are the real heroes and this week we come together to remember the sacrifices they made on the battlefield to ensure we don’t have to.
Catch you soon.