As we approach the centenary of the Armistice Day commemorations, here's a number for you to consider - 19,240.
Let's say it again - nineteen thousand, two hundred and forty.
Now say it slowly ...
That was the amount of British troops killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Yes, 19,240 dead. In 24 hours. A further 38,220 Brits were injured ON THE SAME DAY.
The Battle of the Somme raged on for five months, with more than 1m men – from both sides – killed or wounded. And after all that bloodshed, British troops had gained seven miles. For the tsunami of tears all those deaths had created, for all the families forever ripped apart as a result, for all the weeping and the grieving, for all the broken hearts that would never be healed, could never be healed, we had gained the territorial advantage roughly equivalent of driving from north Portsmouth to Fareham.
Nineteen thousand, two hundred and forty deaths in one day. For comparison purposes, ‘only’ 7,186 British troops have been killed in the 74 years since the end of the Second World War. In only three years – 1972, 1973 and 1982 – has the death toll edged into triple figures (the first two due to The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the latter due to the Falklands War).
For the Fallen , by Laurence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Nineteen thousand, two hundred and forty deaths in 24 hours. And that is just one reason why Remembrance Sunday remains a critically important part of our year. Last year, this year, next year, and so on. We have to remember the fallen, the heroes, the war dead. We cannot forget. And we have a duty to our children and our children’s children to ensure they cannot forget either. We cannot stop at one hundred years of remembering.
Here's 17 famous words by John Maxwell Edmonds, forever a thought-provoking epitaph to our heroes: ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say - for their tomorrow, we gave our today.’
And 'today', as we sit here in our cosy homes scrolling through social media on our expensive mobile phones, we cannot imagine what life was like in the Somme. Even possessing a fevered imagination cannot open a portal to life in the trenches and a very high chance of being killed on the same day as nineteen thousand, two hundred and thirty nine of your fellow countrymen.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
Want some more figures? During the First World War – the ending of which was signed 100 years ago this Sunday on November 11, 1918 – around 880,000 British troops died. That's six per cent of the male population at the time.
Portsmouth lost around 6,000 men. In London 41,833 men never returned home. Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool also saw their war dead numbers reach tens of thousands.
So many heartbreaking facts, and so hard to fully digest them.
As you prepare to fall silent on the 100th anniversary of the end of the first World War, remember those facts. Remember these, too – the Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of The Great War. The British lost 14 ships. Six thousand lives were lost.
And on it goes, the grim death toll rising by the day, the week, the month, the year. Now we come to the third battle of Ypres in 1917. End result – 500,000 soldiers across both sides wounded, killed or missing in the horrors of the Western Front.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe
Two 15-year-olds were among the dead. My own son is 16 and has thankfully, mercifully, been able to grow up in an environment free of war, free of bullets, free of danger.
And free of death.
Not every father was so lucky in The Great War. It is believed around 250,000 under-18s ended up being recruited by the British armed forces during 1914-1918. They included Sidney Lewis, who extraordinarily fought in the Battle of the Somme aged just 13.
My own son, when he was 13, was busy fighting wars as well. On his computer screen. It is unimaginable to contemplate him fighting in a real war at that age. A century ago, the unimaginable was very real indeed, and no one was playing a childish game.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Now imagine this, or try to imagine it at any rate. The year is 1997, and a war that resulted in the best part of a million British people being killed is finally over. Fast forward to this year, and another one starts that will result in almost 400,000 more deaths. Two world wars, just 21 years apart. Another tsunami of tears, another generation decimated on the battle fronts.
That was the reality back in 1939. Twenty one years after The Great War had ended, the Second World War was about to begin. What must those who had lived through the first war thought? That all their loved ones had died in vain?
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.
What would they think, the fallen hundreds of thousands, our war heroes, if they could see us now? Social media-centric snowflakes seemingly everywhere, taking offence at everything and anything – including the naming of a box of tissues (‘mansize’) or complaining about supposedly 'sexist' signs on supermarket trollies. Some even take offence at being called a snowflake. Sadly, scandalously, you could not make it up.
What would they think, the fallen, those that never came home from The Great War, if they could see a students’ union in Manchester advocating banning clapping because the noise could upset those with anxiety issues? They might think it’s a good job those students weren’t on the Western Front between 1914-1918 because there was probably a lot of noise there, and snowflakes wouldn’t have helped Britain win the war. And if they did think that, they would be right.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
If you want to get very angry very quickly, a few minutes on Google will bring up on your screens a desultory list of insults to those that made the ultimate sacrifice. Remembrance Day parades under threat because of ‘health and safety’. Parish councils insisting silhouettes of First World War soldiers cannot be exhibited because their guns might cause offence. Silhouettes that have been put up, vandalised. Spectacularly stupid people urinating on war memorials (one woman in Essex did this THREE times!). Companies banning employees from wearing the poppy. Student unions threatening to take down First World War pictures because there are no coloured faces in them. A memorial poppy garden trashed in Edinburgh only last weekend. Read those stories and weep – not just for those killed in action over a century ago, but for today’s society.
Armed with the above-mentioned roll call of insults to our war dead, we can almost hear the fallen ask each other: ‘Yes, we gave our tomorrow for their today – and they treat us like THIS?’
Thankfully, though, there are more good people in our country than stupid ones – even though it might not appear that way at times if you’re a regular on social media. Thankfully, thousands will honour the sacrifice of well over a million members of the British Armed Forces on the Armistice centenary, Sunday, November 11, 2018.
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
And we shall this Sunday, as we have always done, as we hopefully always will, and as we must if we are to retain any semblance of being a civilised society, remember them...