Remembering 1916

Posted on Thurs, 2 June 2016 by Alyson Thomas
Posted in: Medal News
Remembering 1916 ASK ANYONE, in or out of our hobby, to name a famous battle or action and the usual suspects will come up: Waterloo, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Islandhlwana, Rorke’s Drift, Gallipoli, the First Day of the Somme, Dunkirk, El Alamein, the Normandy Landings—all very familiar but, you will note, far from all military successes. Indeed, in our own inimitable British way it seems that military disasters are as well-known as military successes, in many cases better known—everyone, whether interested in military history or not, has heard of the Charge of the Light Brigade, ask them about the (far more successful) Charge of the Heavy Brigade and often you’ll get the response “Don’t you mean ‘Light Brigade’?”. That’s certainly the case for the First day of the Somme which was, by any reckoning, a disaster for British Forces, with over 57,000 casualties IN ONE DAY. Over 19,000 of whom were killed. It was, and remains, the single biggest number of casualties ever suffered by British Forces on a single day and, barring an apocalypse (possibly brought on by Brexit if you listen to certain politicians), that’s a grisly record that looks unlikely to be beaten. To put it into perspective, it is as if a third of our regular army personnel today were killed or incapacitated in one 24 hour period. Can you imagine that? An entire third of our army unable to fight, just like that? Of course, the army then comprised far more men than it does now; 1916 saw the Regular Army, already swollen from a recruitment drive in the Summer of 1914, fighting alongside the New Army units. Kitchener’s boys, who had rushed to volunteer when told that their country needed them, had already been bloodied at Loos in September 1915, so by the time the Somme rolled around they were old hands. Not such old hands were the conscripts, the men who hadn’t heeded the call, hadn’t volunteered but who were, by 1916, launched into the thick of things by the Military Service Bill. Now admittedly not many of those new “recruits” would have been fighting on the first day of the Somme but some were, still more were undergoing training at home, whilst others resolutely refused to get involved with some 30 per cent of those conscripted (by March 2, 1916 they were deemed to have enlisted whether they actually had or not) failing to appear by the time the Battle of the Somme was underway.
This mass conscription is something often overlooked when we talk about 1916—we remember July 1, we remember the succeeding months of harrowing trench warfare, we remember the advent of the tank and its part on the Somme and we remember the Irish Rising and the men of the British Army who thought they were heading to France only to be greeted by English speakers in Dun Laoghaire. But 1916 should also be remembered for another reason: for that was the year the war became everyone’s problem. Not a family, not a community, not a workplace would remain untouched as, for the first time in British history (not UK history—the Irish were exempt from conscription as it created support for Sinn Fein and the republicans) it wasn’t just those who had voluntarily enlisted who were affected by war but everybody, whether they liked it or not. From our point of view, as medal collectors, this conscription was a Godsend—it meant that today, some 100 years later, we are able to add many more medals to our collections than would otherwise be the case, men from our home town, men who bore our surname, men who were in “our” regiment.
Sadly many of us don’t rate “pairs” overmuch. We buy them if the price is right or if they bear the right name or regiment certainly, but they aren’t treasured like other groups in our collections, they aren’t accorded the same level of respect simply because their story isn’t quite as interesting as that of the DSO group or the IGS group that sits next to them in the cabinet. But in this year of all years try to remember that actually the story behind them may be just as interesting if only you knew it—yes, it’s possible that the recipient was a volunteer, regular army even, who just didn’t make it overseas in time to qualify for a Star or had simply not been old enough to fight until 1916 or later, but it’s equally possible that the man who finally received just Squeak and Wilfred, the medals now in your collection, had done his best to avoid the fighting, had cowered at home terrified of going out lest he be hounded by women with white feathers, who appealed desperately not to fight only to have his objections set aside by a tribunal and find himself marched off to the nearest barracks forthwith. There’s a story behind the lowliest pair out there and whilst we may never find out exactly what it was, it’s always worth considering that the men who won those medals were just ordinary people, not professional soldiers—they didn’t want to fight, didn’t want to kill or die. 1916 changed all that—and that’s worth remembering.

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