This Sunday, November 11, marks a particularly significant anniversary; it will be 100 years since the end of the Great War — or World War I as it was subsequently labelled. Amongst the enormous weight of dreadful statistics, there are two relatively unknown ones that stand out to me.
The first is the geographical scale of the conflict's impact. Indeed, in the whole of the UK, there were only 53 settlements in England and Wales whose members of the armed forces all survived the war. These places became known as 'Thankful Villages', and 14 of these settlements are considered 'doubly thankful' in that they also lost no service personnel during World War II. There were no such thankful places in Scotland or Ireland (at this time all of the island of Ireland was part of the UK) and in France only Thierville in Normandy lost no men during World War I.
Second, and surely the most poignant statistic, is the sheer number of people who died in the final stages of the four-year struggle. The Armistice* (cease fire) was signed at 5am on November 11, 1918, with an end to the hostilities being set for the eleventh hour of that eleventh day of the eleventh month. Nevertheless, it has been estimated that the final morning saw almost 11,000 casualties, including some 2,700 killed (this includes many French fatalities whose death was apparently backdated by a day because of the embarrassment).
* The war was not formally over until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, and the US did not ratify the treaty until the Knox–Porter Resolution in July 1921. Unusually, a few war memorials in the UK carry the dates of WWI as 1914-19 (as at St Pancreas station).
Two allied soldiers died in the final few minutes of the war. A 26-year-old Canadian, Private George Lawrence Price, was fatally shot by a German sniper. At about the same time, an American, Sergeant Henry Gunther, was killed (after ignoring warning shots) in the act of charging a machine gun nest near Verdun (the circumstances of his attack are disputed).
The last German to die was Lieutenant Tomas, who was shot by American troops (they had not heard about the ceasefire) when he walked towards them to say they could billet in the building his men were vacating. A 40-year-old Frenchman, Augustin Trebuchon, was killed at 10:45am while taking a message to troops by the River Meuse saying that soup would be served 30 minutes after the ceasefire.
Coal miners in the UK volunteered to fight in 1914 with alacrity; war was an escape from the drudgery of working down coal mines at the start of the last century. To be a soldier also offered job security — employment down the pits was notoriously seasonal.
However, when conscription was introduced in March 1916 for medically fit single men (it was extended to married men two months later) aged between 19 (subsequently 18) and 41, coal miners were excluded (along with clergymen, doctors and teachers) because of their importance to the war effort.
As a 'scheduled', or 'reserved', profession, miners were exempt from serving as soldiers. Nevertheless, many colliers had already joined up, including George Edwin Ellison, who was the last British soldier to die in WWI. The 40-year-old was shot by a sniper at 9:30am on that final morning while on a patrol on the outskirts of Mons, Belgium.
Some miners were also called up for tunnel warfare, which became extensively used by all sides (the largely static frontlines created favourable conditions for mining). The largest mining operations were conducted at the Battle of Messines, where specialist Royal Engineer tunnelling companies placed mines under enemy lines, killing about 10,000 German soldiers.
The difficulties of life for miners in the early 20th century were reflected in some of the work of Wilfred Owen, who is widely regarded as the greatest poet of the war. Born in March 1893, Owen's war poetry on the horrors of the conflict was heavily influenced by his mentor Siegfried Sassoon and stood in stark contrast to the patriotic verse written by earlier English war poets, such as Rupert Brooke.
Among his best-known works are 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' and 'Spring Offensive'. He also wrote 'Miners' in January 1918, a few weeks after leaving Craiglockhart hospital where he had been recovering from shell-shock. Owen wrote the poem in direct response to the Minnie pit disaster in which 156 miners died.
The first and last verses are particularly memorable:
There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal.
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.
The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids,
While songs are crooned.
But they will not dream of us poor lads
Left in the ground.
Wilfred Owen died one week before the WWI ceasefire while crossing the Sambre-Oise canal, and his mother received notification of his death on Armistice Day.