The First World War in British Memory

For Remembrance Day this year, the Canadian non-profit Vimy Foundation commissioned an Ipsos poll on the First World War whose most interesting question, at least for me, was about the number of soldier deaths suffered by the Canadian, American, Belgian, British, French, and German armies – with answers from online panels in all six countries. You can see the results, including average error, on page 17 of the poll.

Unsurprisingly, everyone was wildly inaccurate all the way, with the average error ranging from 299,286 for the French to 487,980 for the United States – relative to actual casualty numbers between 40,936 (for Belgium) and 1,397,800 (for Germany). I doubt I would have done any better without any cues for scale or relative order.

The official summary highlights a few interesting observations:

Respondents in the US, UK and France came closest to correctly guessing their own country’s World War One soldier deaths. US respondents also came closest to correctly guessing the numbers for Canada and Belgium, while those in France were nearest the mark for Germany. Each country over-estimated Canadian deaths – including Canadians by nearly 3-times. French respondents’ guesses were, on average, the most accurate.

Converting the results from absolute numbers to percentage error, though, makes some other facts jump out.


Deaths Respondents
Canada United States Belgium Great Britain France Germany Average
Canada 237% 107% 211% 266% 220% 241% 213%
United States 229% 201% 229% 237% 312% 289% 250%
Belgium 456% 278% 520% 659% 440% 447% 466%
Great Britain 59% 42% 58% 119% 54% 65% 66%
France 42% 30% 40% 47% 65% 60% 47%
Germany 41% 31% 52% 57% 73% 60% 53%
Average 130% 80.5% 135% 162% 130% 132%
More than anything else, what respondents missed was that European powers were an order of magnitude more involved in the war than Canada and the US (and that Belgium was, relatively speaking, a tiny country). Respondents in every country – with one exception – overestimated the North American and Belgian losses and underestimated the French, German, and British losses.

Beyond that, the accuracy of the French guess in absolute terms turn out to have rested on the fact that French and German deaths constituted three-quarters of the total deaths being estimated – the French guesses were the least accurate of any nation for US deaths and subpar for Canadian deaths too. In fact, if you look at the average error as a matter of percentages, it’s the Americans who come out best. I sure didn’t see that coming.

Last, but hardly least, only one country bucks the trend when it comes to under- or over-estimating a country’s deaths.The average British guess for that country’s losses is one of three cases where the nation’s guess of its own losses is closest of the six, but it’s the only one that breaks the common pattern.Where every other nation under-guesses British soldier deaths the British over-estimate their own by twenty per cent. I wouldn’t read too much into any of these numbers, but there’s got to be something interesting going on where the French and German’s underestimate their national losses by 35–40% and the British overestimate their by 20%.

Counting Teeth

In his memoir of travels in Namibia, Peter Midgley writes that “Where Parisian flâneurs provide direction simply by conjuring up the name of a rue, Namibians use their monuments as points of reference.”

There are statues at the one end of Independence Avenue and statues at the other end. And in between there are monuments and statues in Zoo Park and other places. Namibia has more statues and monuments per capita than any other place in the world. There are South African colonial statues, German colonial statues and memorials and, since independence, an increasing number of new statues to honour the heroes of the Struggle. “At the kudu statue, turn left,” the people of Windhoek say, “Head along Independence Avenue until you see Curt von François in front of the town hall …” And so on. Heaven forbid that a landmark should move. What chaos could ensue!

Midgley’s trip into Namibian history and his Namibian past certainly demonstrates that there is no shortage of memory to commemorate. From the cross marking Bartolomeu Dias’ landfall at Dias Point in 1487 to the battlefields of the War of Independence, Midgley’s trip traces the impressions history has left across the Namibian landscape.

Toronto certainly isn’t a place where memorials make an impression – a colleague who moved to the city recently commented that Torontonians always give directions in terms of cardinal directions, not landmarks. In fact, I have a hard time imagining people here ever using memorials (as opposed to buildings, like the CN Tower) as a proxy for locations. There’s no shortage of history here, really, but I suppose it’s not a pervasively present history. In Toronto, contra Faulkner, the past really is past.

The Colour of War

What colours are World War One? Is it the brown of Flanders mud, the gunmetal grey of the guns, the crimson red of the blood?

According to PANTONE’s The 20th Century in Color, the war was Medal Bronze, Twill, Trekking Green, Dress Blues, Saxony Blue, Grenadine, and Bright White.*

In the Anglosphere, at least, we tend to see the war in sepia tones, a reflection of the photography of the era and a gesture towards the mud and the khaki of the British army. The muddiness of the images match the muddiness of our memories. World War One is a past that has already been raided for messages so many times that it is danger of collapsing into oblivion, undermined so badly by successive searchers for morals.

As Gary Sheffield has observed, by the time they were interviewed for the BBC’s The Great War, the war’s veterans had lived through and in some cases fought in a second, very different, world war. Probably the most influential academic book on the war’s legacy, Paul Fussell’s The Great War in Modern Memory, was written by a US Army lieutenant who had fought in North-West Europe in 1944-45 (and went on to write several books about that war).

Look at the war’s paintings, blessed with a palette that doesn’t stop at the limits of reality but takes in the full spectrum. You can start with John Singer Sargent’s Gassed and its thin khaki line set against a mottled, muddy sky, but this was also the war of the Futurists, the Vorticists, and god-forbid, the Cubists. (Ignore Picasso’s statement to Gertrude Stein that the cubists had made camouflage possible. Their impact on the war was much more subtle and wide-ranging.)

When Hew Strachan published his one-volume history of the war in 2003 he included a set of plates with autochrome pictures captured by the French army’s Service Photographique. The color images are a revelation, not because they deny any of the truths about the war we already know, but because they cast them in what is—literally—a new light.

Suddenly, khaki, horizon blue, and field grey no longer blend into the background but stand out against it. Grass is green, flower-flecked, even when it grows on the edge of a trench. The sun is warm, even if shells fall from it without warning. The many posed shots show a a mix of smiles and scowls, but they never show the placid faces of those who have seen their own deaths (though if the idea of that interests you, you should watch the 1975 World War Two film Overlord).

I’ve tried very hard in this post to avoid the word “reality.” The reality of World War One is something that can never be truly recovered, and anyone who tells you that they’ve got it or experienced it is a liar. But we can try to honor the full breadth of that reality, at least in small ways. It would be a terrible pity if the war’s centenary were to be a flurry of excavating for symbols and lessons that finally kicks in the props and makes the whole edifice collapse.

*Wondering what were the colors of World War Two? Pantone gives a more muted palette of Tan, Olive Grey, Dress Blues, Major Brown, Desert Palm, Paprika and Blithe. No entry for Vietnam, though the book does have crackerjack palettes for Film Noir and Miami Vice.

The Last Tommies

January means a new batch of biographies in the online version of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including Britain’s last World War One veterans.

(I can’t express just how much I love the ODNB. It’s a treasure trove of information, serious and whimsical. And it just keeps growing: 225 more biographies were added in the latest quarterly update.)

Among the new entries is a really interesting one on Harry Patch (1898-2009), Henry Allingham (1896-2009), and Bill Stone (1900-2009). They were Britain’s last World War One veterans, Allingham from the RAF, Stone from the Royal Navy, and Patch—who was, for the last week of his life Britain’s only surviving World War One veteran—from the Army. The entry, by ODNB associate editor Peter Parker, observes that it was only in the last years of their lives that three men acquired their status as bearers of a special, solemn memory of the war. All had lived relatively “ordinary” lives (as a plumber, a mechanic, and a barber) for most of the 20th century.

At the end, Patch the “last Tommy” was a very un-ordinary veteran. Conscripted into the army in 1916 (“I didn’t want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to”), at the third battle of Ypres his light machine gun team made a pact to try not to kill anyone. Once in the public eye, he condemned war and declared the official Remembrance Day ceremony at Whitehall “just show business.” He refused the offer of a state funeral, and insisted that there not even be any ceremonial weapons on the honor guard from France, Belgium, Britain, and Germany at his funeral in Wells Cathedral.

Parker ends the entry by saying that “the ‘last veterans’ both represented and spoke for those who fought and died a lifetime before,” but that seems to blandly understate what these men symbolized in their last years. They certainly spoke for themselves and many others, but as representatives they became living embodiments of a whole nation’s collective memory. Harry Patch seems to have never let bearing a century’s-worth of national remembrance on his shoulders get in the way of speaking his mind, but I’m not sure how many people who saw him saw him and not an endless line of Tommies, sacrificed before their time: the interchangeable dead of national rather than personal memory. Representing that is a pretty heavy burden, the kind that we usually only ask be carried by men of bronze or stone.