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Remembered Today:

Dead Reckoning


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Dead Right or Dead Wrong? For quite some time I have been variously curious and then quietly aghast at the perceptions held by the man on the Clapham omnibus regarding some basic stats on the Great War. The Great War has been on the schools' national curriculum for some years and we have been exposed to lots of documentaries in the past 4 years, seas of ceramic poppies and action-men dollies in linen misleading us through symbolism informing us on the human cost of war. It is interesting that after 100 years we continue to focus on those who died rather than those who survived... so one might expect that knowledge of those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War has improved slightly. 

 

Occasionally the subject of the Great War comes up in social conversation. It is immediately clear that Alan Clark's view of the war continues to contaminate many people's perceptions. In order to try and gauge the gap between perceptions and reality I have started (since Christmas) to ask one simple question:

 

Q. For every 100 men who enlisted in the Army in the Great War how many died?

 

So far no-one has come close. The lowest estimate was 25%. "As any fule kno" this is more than double the real number. There is no pattern to the ignorance; it transcends all ages and classes. I would be interested in casting the net wider and would be interested in hearing from others what responses they get to the same question. I am simply trying to establish if the mi££ions spent on commemoration have moved the dial of understanding at the most basic level. If one can hold their interest long enough, it is worth asking how and why the person thought 25% or 50% or whatever their answer was... it is an interesting experiment. When asked 'what is the answer?" I recommend saying "I dont know either". Hopefully they will then go and find out....  All four of my children (now passing through university) who had to study WWI (sic) at school were more than 100% out. They all could quote a War Poet though... Bad parenting.... mea culpa... or a small waste of school fees...

 

If there are any school teachers out there, I would be interested in the responses from any random class samples. 

 

Martin

 

 

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I take a lot of school groups to France and Flanders and I always start by dispelling the idea that they all died (in the mud).  Most kids come up with something around the 25% figure although in their defence I don't think they know nor understand the size/scale of the Army, and I am not sure they are that hot on what %s are.  The worst I have had from adults is one chap who genuinely thought that 3/4 of soldiers were killed in the Great War.  I took him through the figures and despite this he still couldn't believe it wasn't anywhere near as high as he had initially suggested.  

 

I bet Murrison doesn't know the correct answer. 

 

And don't get me started on Shrouds of the Somme!

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4 minutes ago, Gareth Davies said:

 Most kids come up with something around the 25% figure

 

Any idea of why 25% ? What is fuelling their thinking.....?

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4 minutes ago, Gareth Davies said:

I bet Murrison doesn't know the correct answer. 

 

And I would bet 90% of MPs don't know either particularly the member for Portsmouth North. 

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6 minutes ago, QGE said:

 

Any idea of why 25% ? What is fuelling their thinking.....?

 

I think (which means I am guessing) it's because they have covered it (briefly) in school, they can't remember the real percentage, they know it's quite a lot of men (and a few women) in numbers terms but they vaguely recall that the % wasn't huge, and so 25% is a nice hedge.   

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7 minutes ago, QGE said:

 

And I would bet 90% of MPs don't know either particularly the member for Portsmouth North. 

 

She was named after a Frigate apparently and is a member of the RNR.  Maybe she knows the figures for the RN.

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12 minutes ago, Gareth Davies said:

 

I think (which means I am guessing) it's because they have covered it (briefly) in school, they can't remember the real percentage, they know it's quite a lot of men (and a few women) in numbers terms but they vaguely recall that the % wasn't huge, and so 25% is a nice hedge.   

 

It makes sense.

 

I went to a dinner party a few weeks ago. 12 people. All except one were graduates. Five Cambridge graduates, one Oxford. One had (allegedly) and open scholarship to study history (yes I know it is a broad church). The average of their estimates was 38%. His was 26%. All were disbelieving when I told them the real figure. Indignant in fact. I did offer everyone the option of not participating. None refused. The good 'lead in' is to start a conversation on how stupid contestants are on the oxy-moronic (sic) Celebrity Mastermind. They couldn't stop themselves from proving their superior knowledge. .... 

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I absolutely understand the point you are making and I agree that there is a serial lack of knowledge out there (and thus some aspects of the educational elements of 100th anniversary period  have failed miserably) but I think you are being slightly harsh on your chums/guests.  I suspect that even a good number of people who know quite a good deal about some aspects of the Great War don't know the % (and if they do, do they know the % of those who survived who were uninjured?).  

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I'm waiting to see what percentages are put forward by informed and erudite members of the GWF - except we have the chance to Google for help before posting.

 

I'm not much perturbed by the ignorance of Guest's coterie. I can't recall the percentage that so much eludes them having been given in any of the media coverage aimed at the general public in the past few years.  I come across that sort of lack of knowledge quite often in other areas that I know a little more about than my colleagues.

 

Moonraker

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18 minutes ago, Gareth Davies said:

I absolutely understand the point you are making and I agree that there is a serial lack of knowledge out there (and thus some aspects of the educational elements of 100th anniversary period  have failed miserably) but I think you are being slightly harsh on your chums/guests.  I suspect that even a good number of people who know quite a good deal about some aspects of the Great War don't know the % (and if they do, do they know the % of those who survived who were uninjured?).  

 

I am not judging them, merely making/measuring an observation. I don't have enough data points to make an informed judgement. 

 

The judgment (if indeed there is any judgement to make) would be aimed at the people in charge of our centenary commemorations. Personally I think the sea of poppies whilst visually stunning  and artistically interesting, ultimately managed to reinforce perceptions of mass slaughter.  As did action-man dollies in linen.  So far I have seen no commemoration of the huge positives that came out of the war such as increased life expectancy, reduced morbidity, reduced mortality, reduced infant mortality, reduced poverty, ..on a scale (% increase) never seen again.

 

If a medical Doctor asked me randomly what I thought the survival rate was for pancreatic cancer I wouldn't have a clue and not offer a guess. The difference is that pancreatic cancer is not on the schools' national curriculum and we are not in the fourth year of a four year centenary of pancreatic cancer treatment (licence-payer funded) documentaries led by Dan Snow the BBC (inform, educate, entertain) and anyone else happy to distort facts to make headlines in the interest of entertainment informing us. If on the other hand she asked me what infant mortality was in Wigan in 1913 compared to 1919 I would happily state it had more or less halved. 

 

Martin

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On reflection, an estimate of 25% is quite a respectable  answer from someone who doesn’t profess to study the Great War.

 

If one were to consider the warfare of the Napoleonic era - when disease accounted for such a huge preponderance of the fatalities - I reckon that one in four  - perhaps more - of all those who donned uniform died.

 

And at least one quarter of all Confederate soldiers who enlisted in the army in the American Civil War died or were killed : again, disease accounting for more than battle.

 

The  improved medical facilities of the Great War impinged on death rates by massively reducing the incidence of fatal disease....although I’m bound to wonder whether this was largely offset by exponentially increased combat mortality.

 

In the Serbian, Romanian and Turkish armies, though, it might well be that 25% of all soldiers died in the Great War, because these armies did not escape the lethal squalour that characterised earlier warfare .

 

The Anglo - French - German armies 1914-18 suffered nearly ninety percent of all their fatalities as a direct result of battle ; had their disease deaths been as prominent as those in the Balkan and Middle Eastern theatres, then, surely, that twenty five per cent assumption would hold good.

 

Most people understandably associate the Great War with squalour, and I’ve heard many “ laymen “ insist that more men died from disease in those conditions “ in the trenches “ than were killed in battle.  They also tend to conflate “ casualties “ with “ killed “.

 

I’ll ask my older grandchildren the question.

 

If they suggest 25%, then I’ll be satisfied that they’re not entering preposterous realms.

 

If we confine our remit to infantrymen only, then the twenty five per cent wouldn’t be so far off the mark, would it, especially in the French and German armies ?

 

Phil

 

 

 

 

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15 minutes ago, QGE said:

 

I am not judging them, merely making/measuring an observation. I don't have enough data points to make an informed judgement. 

 

The judgment (if indeed there is any judgement to make) would be aimed at the people in charge of our centenary commemorations. Personally I think the sea of poppies whilst visually stunning  and artistically interesting, ultimately managed to reinforce perceptions of mass slaughter.  As did action-man dollies in linen.  So far I have seen no commemoration of the huge positives that came out of the war such as increased life expectancy, reduced morbidity, reduced mortality, reduced infant mortality, reduced poverty, ..on a scale (% increase) never seen again.

 

If a medical Doctor asked me randomly what I thought the survival rate was for pancreatic cancer I wouldn't have a clue and not offer a guess. The difference is that pancreatic cancer is not on the schools' national curriculum and we are not in the fourth year of a four year centenary of pancreatic cancer treatment (licence-payer funded) documentaries led by Dan Snow the BBC (inform, educate, entertain) and anyone else happy to distort facts to make headlines in the interest of entertainment informing us. If on the other hand she asked me what infant mortality was in Wigan in 1913 compared to 1919 I would happily state it had more or less halved. 

 

Martin

 

God, I judge people the whole time, and lack of data points has never stopped me!  

 

Yes, I agree with your second paragraph. The only counter is that, at my very low level, I have been banging those drums at every opportunity and I know that others have been doing the same.  But maybe we are simply pissing in the ocean.  I am tempted to point the finger back at Murrison for the lack of narrative.  

 

I think I am right in saying that while it's on the curriculum it's not compulsory in that schools get given a choice on which periods of history to study. I don't have any handle on the % of schools that do study the Great War.  

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This very minute I’ve just asked my wife.

 

Guess what !

 

 

Twenty five per cent !

 

Edit : Just asked older daughter, 37 years old, Cambridge graduate : 20%.

 

Her husband, 43 years old, Oxford graduate : 5%.

 

I’ll ask their kids when I pick them up from school tomorrow.

 

Phil

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I would guess that some of the lesser-informed (and, dare I say, one or two GWF members) might be thinking in terms of a percentage of those who service put them at great risk: in the Front Line, flying over enemy territory, at sea. Pedants may wish to observe that the opening post referred to "the Army", thus excluding the Royal Navy but perhaps not - even more pedantically - the Royal Flying Corps.

 

Somewhere I've seen a figure (and no, I can't remember it) for the number of men who were needed to support one fighting soldier and who were seldom at great risk (which is not to say that they did not suffer casualties). In the case of the RFC, how many aircrew were in a squadron (a couple of dozen?), how many ground crew, how many paper-pushers, storemen, medical staff etc?)

 

I was going to put my head above the parapet and suggest a percentage or two myself, but I need someone to lead me over the top - that is, have a guess first. Fortunately I'll soon be logging off until tomorrow evening, so I won't need to follow any brave soul just yet..

 

Moonraker

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On 29 January 2018 at 20:28, Gareth Davies said:

 

God, I judge people the whole time, and lack of data points has never stopped me!  

 

Yes, I agree with your second paragraph. The only counter is that, at my very low level, I have been banging those drums at every opportunity and I know that others have been doing the same.  But maybe we are simply pissing in the ocean.  I am tempted to point the finger back at Murrison for the lack of narrative.  

 

I think I am right in saying that while it's on the curriculum it's not compulsory in that schools get given a choice on which periods of history to study. I don't have any handle on the % of schools that do study the Great War.  

 

Your conclusion might suggest that despite the Great War being on the schools national curriculum, despite the Govt spending millions on promoting centenary projects and despite the media swamping us with WWI (sic) documentaries, our nation's fundamental understanding of the raw basics of the Great War is still anchored in Alan Clark's 1965 view. I cant think of an historical event that has had so much money thrown at it that simply hasn't moved the dial. It is (to me at least) a great curiosity and perhaps illustrates justhow difficult it is to propagate a message in the intensely saturated media space. One slightly understands why things are dumbed down.

 

We may as well be discussing the thread count per inch on the Bayeux Tapestry such is the seemingly distant and arcane nature of the Great War to the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus. 

 

 

On 29 January 2018 at 20:35, phil andrade said:

This very minute I’ve just asked my wife.

Guess what !

Twenty five per cent !

Phil

 

Hilarious. Ask your postman. 

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7 minutes ago, Moonraker said:

I would guess that some of the lesser-informed (and, dare I say, one or two GWF members) might be thinking in terms of a percentage of those who service put them at great risk: in the Front Line, flying over enemy territory, at sea. Pedants may wish to observe that QGE's opening post referred to "the Army", thus excluding the Royal Navy but perhaps not - even more pedantically - the Royal Flying Corps.

 

Somewhere I've seen a figure (and no, I can't remember it) for the number of men who were needed to support one fighting soldier and who were seldom at great risk (which is not to say that they did not suffer casualties). In the case of the RFC, how many aircrew were in a squadron (a couple of dozen?), how many ground crew, how many paper-pushers, storemen, medical staff etc?)

 

I was going to put my head above the parapet and suggest a percentage or two myself, but I need someone to lead me over the top - that is, have a guess first. Fortunately I'll soon be logging off until tomorrow evening, so I won't need to follow any brave soul just yet..

 

Moonraker

 

I will give you a clue.  As stated in the OP,  25% is more than double the real figure.

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12 minutes ago, Gareth Davies said:

 

I will give you a clue.  As stated in the OP,  25% is more than double the real figure.

Of all who enlisted? Oh all right, I'm still here and I shall poke a periscope above the parapet and suggest 5 to 6 per cent. I was also going to suggest more than twice that for those were most at risk, but I couldn't get the two figures to match up, as I was also guessing that for each soldier (including airmen) at risk, there were from seven to ten men who were not. And one might say that those seven to ten were  the same men most of the time, whereas fighting men who died were replaced by others.

 

I'm almost tempted to take the easy way out and Google for the answers.

 

Moonraker

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On 29 January 2018 at 20:56, phil andrade said:

Asked younger daughter, aged 34, she says 55%.

 

Her husband, 39, reckons 40%.

 

Phil

 

Fabulosa. Valuable inputs. 

 

In my samples the better educated and the older they were the greater the error ratio. I putit down to the durability of the 1960s and  Alan Clark and OWALW.  The Blackadder factor is now counter-intuitive as teachers use video clips to illustrate the gaps between perception and reality. Huzzah!. Oddly the younger generation seem to be better informed than their parents whose parents fought in the Great War. 

 

Martin

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7 minutes ago, Moonraker said:

Of all who enlisted? Oh all right, I'm still here and I shall poke a periscope above the parapet and suggest 5 to 6 per cent. I was also going to suggest more than twice that for those were most at risk, but I couldn't get the two figures to match up, as I was also guessing that for each soldier (including airmen) at risk, there were from seven to ten men who were not. And one might say that those seven to ten were  the same men most of the time, whereas fighting men who died were replaced by others.

 

I'm almost tempted to take the easy way out and Google for the answers.

 

Moonraker

 

It is not a 'test'. Any answer is acceptable. The question is really trying to determine the source(s) of our perceptions. 30 years ago I would have said 50% while being able to quote Dulce et decorum est flawlessly, such was the dire nature of my education. 

 

Personally I think the official figure is misleading by a very large margin as it is ill-defined. A quarter of men who enlisted never made it to a theatre of war.... so the numbers might reasonably undergo some adjustments. 

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1 hour ago, QGE said:

 

Fabulosa. Valuable inputs. 

 

In my samples the better educated and the older they were the greater the error ratio. I putit down to the durability of the 1960s and  Alan Clarke, and OWALW.  The Blackadder factor is now counter-intuitive as teachers use video clips to illustrate the gaps between perception and reality. Huzzah!. Oddly the younger generation seem to be better informed than their parents whose parents fought in the Great War. 

 

Martin

 

 

Older daughter ( 37 ) is a solicitor and pitched at twenty per cent ; her husband ( 43 ) is a town  planner and pretty savvy with numbers, being conversant with demographics : he suggested five per cent.  So mid way between those two is about right, if we’re dealing with British soldiers only.

 

I reminded my younger daughter - who had suggested 55% - that both my grandfathers had survived on account of relatively safe roles : one an army chaplain, the other a motor bike dispatch rider for the RFC.  I don’t think many people realise how large the proportion who avoided front line service was.  They think of those who   slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack ....and let’s face it, if we confine our remit to such as they, the 25% sounds all too plausible.

 

I was delighted with my grandchildren : they’ve been taught about the assassination at Sarajevo and were genuinely interested, and were much more clued up than I had expected, even though they’re still at Primary School.  They spoke with ethusiasm about the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, and were keen to emphasise how the war started because the car took a wrong turning.  They  speak a lot about the trenches and I have to say that I’m very encouraged by the standard of the teaching they receive at this local C of E school.  I shall be interested to see what they say when I put this question to them.

 

Phil

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8 minutes ago, phil andrade said:

 

 

Older daughter ( 37 ) is a solicitor and pitched at twenty per cent ; her husband ( 43 ) is a town  planner and pretty savvy with numbers, being conversant with demographics : he suggested five per cent.  So mid way between those two is about right, if we’re dealing with British soldiers only.

 

I reminded my younger daughter - who had suggested 55% - that both my grandfathers had survived on account of relatively safe roles : one an army chaplain, the other a motor bike dispatch rider for the RFC.  I don’t think many people realise how large the proportion who avoided front line service was.  They think of those who   slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack ....and let’s face it, if we confine our remit to such as they, the 25% sounds all too plausible.

 

I was delighted with my grandchildren : they’ve been taught about the assassination at Sarajevo and were genuinely interested, and were much more clued up than I had expected, even though they’re still at Primary School.  They spoke with ethusiasm about the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, and were keen to emphasise how the war started because the car took a wrong turning.  They  speak a lot about the trenches and I have to say that I’m very encouraged by the standard of the teaching they receive at this local C of E school.  I shall be interested to see what they say when I put this question to them.

 

Phil

 

 

It is interesting that within one point of contact that you have 55% and 5%... you can do the maths... Quite fascinating. M

 

I am more interested in the "Why?'"or "How?" they came to their conclusions....

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The working  lives of the people you ask has some bearing on this .

 

A town planner is, perhaps, more inclined to sobriety in estimate than someone who predicates his or her view of history on watching Game of Thrones.

 

phil

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If we are looking only at the Army (including RFC but not RAF), and including the Dominions, the figures are very roughly (but not that far out):

1 million died (all causes including disease and accident)

2 million wounded or affected by injury or disease

5 million survived uninjured (though some will have been mentally affected)

so 12.5% is the ball-park percentage for those who died.

Sources: Statistics of the Military Effort ... and Casualties and Medical Statistics in the Medical OH series.

 

Perhaps more surprising still is the fact that, of every six men wounded, one was discharged, one was medically downgraded but retained in the Army at home or on the L of C, and four recovered sufficiently to return to front-line service. (Same sources)

 

Ron

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5 minutes ago, Ron Clifton said:

If we are looking only at the Army (including RFC but not RAF), and including the Dominions, the figures are very roughly (but not that far out):

1 million died (all causes including disease and accident)

2 million wounded or affected by injury or disease

5 million survived uninjured (though some will have been mentally affected)

so 12.5% is the ball-park percentage for those who died.

Sources: Statistics of the Military Effort ... and Casualties and Medical Statistics in the Medical OH series.

 

Perhaps more surprising still is the fact that, of every six men wounded, one was discharged, one was medically downgraded but retained in the Army at home or on the L of C, and four recovered sufficiently to return to front-line service. (Same sources)

 

Ron

 

 

Ron, Thank you. I am assuming (maybe incorrectly) the parameters of the above are widely understood by the GWF alumni...

 

My core interest is what the Great British Public believe (rather than the informed GWF)...as I mention above, there is no right or wrong answer....I am just trying to gauge popular perceptions. 

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