At 11:00 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 the guns fell silent and the Great War came to an end. The mass slaughter on the battlefield ended and the soldiers on all sides could at last give thanks to their gods and to their luck that they had survived. However, things are never as simple as they seem. Whilst humanity had been very efficient in killing so many, nature also took a hand in things and number of dead made many times worse.
The Great War cost the lives of 8.5 Million and wounded a further 21 Million with 57% of those who took part either killed or wounded. In one sad day on the 1st July 1916 the battle of the Somme claimed 57,470 British Army casualties of which 19,240 were killed or died of wounds. The shame of these numbers should never be forgotten.
At this time every year I think about those poor men who served in the First World War. That’s not to belittle the memory of any other soldier of any other conflict, It’s just, for me, The First World War was the most cruel, most horrific and the most wasteful of any war.
I’ll never be able to understand what it must have felt like to serve in battle. To wait your turn to be ordered to do something so dangerous it may well cost you your life and the courage that needed is just so immense it’s impossible to imagine.
You are sitting in your trench waiting to hear the whistle and be ordered to “go over the top”. The noise of the artillery barrage is so intense it blots out all real thought. You feel fear; you’ve written your letter to your loved ones in case you don’t make it back. No matter how frightened you are you have to do it. It’s do it or get shot. Get shot by your own side or get shot by the other side.
You hear the whistles and the shouting from the trench just in front of yours. The first line jump up and start to walk, no running of course, a safe distance behind the rolling barrage. They walk ever closer to the enemies trench in the near distance. You watch them go, You watch as they begin to fall. Machine gun fire rakes along the line of men back and forward and still they walk and still they fall. Artillery shells and grenades explode amongst them. Screams lost within the noise of battle.
Then it’s your turn. Jump up and walk. You won’t even hear the noise of the bullet until after you’re hit if it hasn’t killed you. You wait for it to happen. If you get hit you hope it will be a wound serious enough to get you out of here and home. You dread the wound, which knocks you down and leaves you to die slowly or makes you fall into mud and drown or be covered in enough earth to bury you forever. You might lie there wounded for hours waiting for the dark and the chance of rescue.
Towards the end of the war casualties increased without a bullet being fired. A real Pandemic, a pernicious flu, claimed the lives of large numbers of troops and the medical staff tending them. The flu added 250,000 UK population deaths to the number of dead from the First World War. Millions died all over the world mostly from the 25-40 year old age group.
Which brings me to I Forget.
Ivano Forget, a French Canadian, died from the flu on the 30th October 1918 in the Craigleith Military Hospital. He had been brought from France, along with many more wounded and seriously ill Canadians to hospitals all over the UK.
I noticed his headstone when I was out walking one Sunday a couple of years ago. I was using the cemetery at Seafield as a shortcut since I’d been walking for hours and had gone much further than intended. The military section of the Cemetery was a surprise to me and more so because of the number of Canadian graves there.
It seems such a waste of life to have fit young men and women fight for their country. It is unfortunately necessary at times for this to be the case. But to have contracted a deadly flu virus when serving and die as a result seems particularly unfair whilst involved in a war, which was so deadly to begin with.
So today I’ll remember the brave men and women who have given their lives to protect others. I’ll remember the soldiers of the First World War and Ivano Forget in particular.