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Remembered Today:

Paul Roberts

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The cost of the Great War – and how millions of British soldiers came home

Many of our soldiers were still serving in three continents as the Great War finally ended on November 11, 1918. A special service marking the centenary of the official end of the war – when a peace treaty was signed in Versailles – is taking place at Witheridge Parish Church on Friday, June 28, 2019. Here, I look at the cost of the war and the challenges of demobilising millions of British officers and men.

 

When the guns of the Great War finally fell silent, the shocking cost of more than four years of bitter conflict began to emerge.

More than nine million soldiers – including 956,000 from the British Army – were killed in action, or died from wounds, disease or in accidents.

Twenty-three million officers and men were wounded and eight million civilians died, many from war-related famine and disease.

The financial cost was staggering, crippling British and European economies and leaving millions of people in poverty.

In all, Great Britain spent something like £27 billion on the 1914-1918 War (or about £420 billion in today’s money).

A large chunk of that money helped to keep millions of soldiers in the British Army fighting in theatres of war in three continents.

The bullets fired in just one day in September 1918 cost nearly £4 million (equivalent to almost £60 million in 2019), according to government statistics.

Bringing back millions of British soldiers from the Western Front, the Middle East and other theatres of war after the Armistice proved an immense challenge.

Demobilising and absorbing them into the civilian workforce was far from easy, with Britain hit by serious industrial unrest after the war.

Hundreds of thousands of British engineers, miners, railway and transport workers were involved in a series of strikes over pay and working conditions.

The first stage of demobilisation at the end of 1918 – in which the first men to be released from the Armed Forces were those holding key jobs in vital industries – caused huge controversy.

Many of those going back to civilian jobs, including miners and engineers, had been the last to be called up for war because they had been needed at home.

Consequently, men with the longest service records were often the last to be demobilised – a move that sparked protests at some British Army camps and soldier demonstrations in London.

Winston Churchill, who served in the Grenadier Guards and Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front, defused the crisis when he was appointed Secretary of State for War in January 1919.

He introduced a more equitable and widely welcomed scheme to ensure longest-serving soldiers were generally demobilised first.

Within two months of the Armistice, more than 300,000 officers and men were released from the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force.

By the end of December 1919, more than 4.5 million had been demobilised, including tens of thousands serving in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and Salonika.

At that stage, about 335,000 were receiving an out-of-work donation – given to soldiers as they looked for employment.

By Christmas 2019, an estimated 80,000 firms had signed up to a national scheme to employ some of the almost two million British soldiers disabled in the war.

Forty thousand of them had lost legs or arms. Many more were left blind. The vast majority needed ongoing care, work, training and support to survive in peacetime.

Demobilisation of officers and men of the Devonshire Regiment, who had 50,000 soldiers serving in the Great War, began weeks after the Armistice.

Twenty-one coal miners in the 1st Devons – who were at Le Quesnoy in Northern France when the war ended – were the first to go, on December 21, 1918.

By March 1, 1919, the battalion, then based at Perwez in Belgium, had been reduced to 26 officers and 255 men.

Sixty miners were the first to leave the 2nd Devons, on December 15, 1918, while the battalion were based in Tournai, on the border of Belgium and France.

Forty miners were released from the 9th Devons in December 1919. Another 300 officers and men went home in January and February 1919.

By March 31 that year, the battalion – based in Pommereuil, Quievy and Englefontaine in Northern France after the Armistice – had just 29 officers and 101 men.

Hundreds of men of officers and men of the 8th Devons – based in Piave and Orgiano in Italy after the Armistice – were demobilised in February 1919.

The first of Devon’s service battalions to be formed, the 8th were the first to disappear, the last of their soldiers arriving in Exeter on March 23, 1919.

The 16th Devons – based in Tournai and then Grammont on the France-Belgium border after the Armistice – released nearly 150 officers and men in February 1919.

Demobilisation of the 10th Devons – who went to Bucharest in November 1918 as the King and Queen of Romania returned to the capital – began in January 1919.

Hundreds of officers and men of the 4th and 6th Devons – based in Baquba and Basra in Mesopotamia at the end of the war – were demobilised between November 1918 and February 1919.

The 2/6th Devons, who sent 160 officers and men to Salonika in December 1918, had released 250 of all ranks by the end of February 1919.

Demobilisation of officers and men from the Garrison Battalion was suspended until May 1919 after the outbreak of trouble in Egypt in the spring of 1919.

The battalion were the last of the Devonshire Regiment to serve in Egypt and Palestine.

The picture shows Pte Walter Roberts, of Sandford, Devon who served in the 1st Royal Marine Light Infantry. He returned home in 1919.

P28 - WALTER ROBERTS RMLI.jpg



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