Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.
This was the first truly global war and became – until just over 20 years later – the most horrific war in history. This was a war unlike those that went before. It was a war between industrialised first world countries employing, for the first time on both side, weapons developed using modern industry – weapons designed to kill on a mass scale. Rifles, cannons, machine guns and chemical weapons. Both sides thought it would be a short war and that they would win. It was the first war where millions of normal civilians would be conscripted into service rather than being fought by professional armies. Four years, three months and 2 weeks later nearly 20 million people died before the armistice was signed in a railway carriage outside the French town of Compiegne ending hostilities.
As a mathematician, I like facts and figures and so let us look at the war through the black and white of these…
The spark was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo by Serb separatists. On 28th of July the first military action took place when the Austro-Hungarian forces shelled the Serbian capital of Belgrade. 1,566 days later at 11am on 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 the war ended. Approximately 19 million people had been killed (about half military personnel the rest civilians). 23 million were wounded.
On average 12,300 people were killed each day of the war. Put that into perspective – that is approximately the population of Mablethorpe killed EVERY DAY FOR 1,566 days.
Nearly 1 million British and Commonwealth citizens were killed during the First World War – a carnage never seen before or since. 1 million over the 1,560 days Britain was involved equates to 576 killed every single day. To put this into perspective 222 Britons have been killed in the war in Iraq over its entire length. 546 have been killed over the entirety of the war in Afghanistan – both less than the daily average of Britons killed in the First World War.
Britain was badly damaged by the war – every city, every town, every village, almost every family were affected by the carnage of the Western Front – but we weren’t the worst affected.
Over 2 million Russians were killed, 2 million Germans, 2 million Turks (most civilians), 1.5 million Austro-Hungarians. Serbia, where the conflict sparked, lost a quarter of its population during the war.
Statistics tell you the brutal truth of the horrors of the 1,566 days of the First World War but sometimes it is the individual stories that hit home. Over the coming five days I’m going to focus on 5 different stories – all linked to my home city of Sheffield. Footballers, a miner, a doctor and a farmer. They will tell the stories of a poet, VC winners and the effects of – the then unknown – post traumatic stress disorder. Ultimately they will tell the stories of a cross section of British society at that time – becoming more educated but still reverent towards king and country and deferential to the class system. It is through stories like these that the true horrors of what these men – on both sides of no mans land – had to endure.