Their hasty orisons

Their hasty orisons

Our forebears in World War One fought on many fronts, facing disease and treacherous conditions as well as enemy fire. Neil Storey explores the dangers, and how the dead were commemorated

Neil Storey, military and social historian

Neil Storey

military and social historian

In the wars preceding World War One, the majority of deaths on foreign campaign service were due to disease, not battle; this was a tragic but hardly surprising statistic when you consider that our soldiers were serving across a vast Empire in many hot and sultry climes from India to the West Indies, and the lack of the medicines and inoculations now taken for granted. World War One was the first modern war using advanced weapons such as heavy artillery, mines, automatic and chemical weapons on an unprecedented scale and the of majority casualties came as a result of action.

According to The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the military war dead (including the merchant navy) for Great Britain and her former colonies was 886,939; 74,187 were lost from the then undivided India, 64,976 from Canada, 61,966 from Australia, 18,052 from New Zealand and 9,477 from South Africa. Add to this over a million wounded.

The Memorial Scroll
The Memorial Scroll sent to the next of kin of those who fell while serving. This man, who served with the 66th Field Company, Royal Engineers, is buried in the Deir El Belah War Cemetery, Palestine

The most common and consistent causes of death in action came from artillery shell fire – thousands of men were simply blown to smithereens, caught by shrapnel or buried under the waves of mud thrown up by the explosive shells, hence the mute testimony of such memorials as Thiepval or the Menin Gate that bear the names of thousands or tens of thousands of men who would have been regarded simply as ‘missing in action’ and have no known grave. Add to that machine guns, especially if the enemy were able to position a pair of them over an area and successfully achieve enfilading fire along the length of an attacking formation of troops. Men would be described as “being cut down like corn in a field”.

The biggest killers of the war on all fronts, however, were silent ones, for there would be far more left wounded after a battle than killed in it and in those days before antibiotics and the terrible conditions of agricultural field mud contaminated with manure, rats and foul water, it was the infection and complications that came as a result of suffering these wounds that proved to be the killer. Then there were those who succumbed to disease and sickness while on active service and medical conditions such as ‘trench foot’ brought about by the conditions in which the men were serving. In severe cases, this could result in blood poisoning and prove fatal – little wonder that the death toll was horrendous.

Dead Man’s Penny
The Memorial or Death Plaque, commonly referred to as the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’, complete with its card cover and envelope

If a man was wounded in action and could not move he was in very vulnerable position. Men would do all they could to crawl back to their lines, dragging their shattered limbs with them – otherwise they would have to lay there, shout, scream and wait for stretcher bearers. If the attack was successful and the objective was consolidated, the removal of casualties from the field could be carried out soon after but if, as so often happened, the ground was not held and the attacking troops fell back to their own lines, and if they did not pick you up on the way back, you could be left there until stretcher bearers were allowed to collect you under a white flag of truce. Sometimes you would have to wait hours until nightfall when they would crawl out under cover of darkness to recover the wounded.

There are many moving stories of how comrades came out under fire to carry their wounded mates back, and harrowing tales of how men were known to be laying wounded out in ‘no man’s land’ and despite their best efforts the attempts by their pals to reach them were frustrated by the intensity of fire. Sometimes when the pal was eventually reached it was too late, or under such intensity of fire bodies could simply disappear. Even when taken up on a stretcher, it could still be a long carry through the regimental aid post and on to a dressing or casualty clearing station. If the casualties had been heavy, many men would have to wait for attention from the surgeon – and many simply did not make it through.

Soldiers have always wanted to give their fallen comrades a decent burial and mark their grave as best they could. Small clusters of graves – marked by an array of motley wooden crosses and markers fashioned from whatever materials were available to hand, such as packing crates and ammunition boxes – sprung up short distances behind the trenches, near dressing and casualty clearing stations. If time and conditions allowed, padres would try to find locations such as orchards or enclosures with recognisable features and note down the burial sites in their notebooks so that one day, when the conflict was over, the graves could be located and a better memorial erected.

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wounded soldiers
Unloading wounded soldiers returned from France from a hospital train at an English station

Tens of thousands of servicemen who ‘caught a blighty wound’ would be removed by hospital ship back to England and then on to a network of hospitals ready to receive them across the country via ambulance train. Many of the new military hospitals opened to meet the ever growing numbers of returned wounded during the war were established in asylums and workhouses, where the inmates had been removed to other premises and the building re-equipped especially for the reception of wounded troops.

There were also hundreds of Auxiliary War Hospitals around the country – commonly referred to as ‘Red Cross Hospitals’ – that had been set up in private country houses, large rectories, and public buildings. These were funded and staffed predominantly by volunteers from the Joint War Organisation of the British Red Cross Society and Order of St. John of Jerusalem, with a paid qualified matron and surgeon (often a local doctor).

Some Auxiliary War Hospitals did provide operating theatres but in the main they were for convalescent troops. Sadly there were still those who did not make it through and across the graveyards of Great Britain there may be found the graves of service personnel brought back as returned wounded from the battlefront who then died in home hospitals, as well as those who died while on home service. These are all marked by the same distinctive headstones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission that can be found all over the world.

The massive losses incurred during World War One saw family bereavements turn into a national sense of loss and remembrance – everybody was related to or at least knew someone who lost their life in the war. A host of veteran’s aid societies and old comrades groups were established to help those who were still suffering through injuries or families left in dire circumstances with the loss of their main breadwinner; notable among these groups created was The British Legion, which held its first official Poppy Day on 11 November 1921.

memoriam card
Cover of the in memoriam card for Stanley Curson White

Throughout the 1920s, families in villages, towns and cities soon came to terms with the fact that many of their loved ones posted ‘missing’ were not going to come home and built their war memorials. Paid for by public subscriptions, they were frequently tall white stone crosses, simple in design, bearing the names of the local men who gave their all in ‘The Great War’.

How the news came home
How the news came home

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