In the UK in the last few years the war records for those who served in the first world war have been released into the public domain ... it has created a big surge in people wanting to find out what happened to their relatives during this time of conflict. It has also helped to identify a lot of unknown graves and given families a sense of closure over their past and filled in blanks in a lot of peoples family history.
Over the weekend I watched a repeat program on TV called "My Family At War" in which celebrities discover the history behind a member of their own family who served in the armed forces during the First World War. The episode I watched had the Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark on as she wanted to find out what happened to her great uncle. She found that her great uncle had joined the army within weeks of the war beginning in 1914 and completed his training. He soon joined the machine gun regiment, in those days classified as an elite unit due to the damage they could cause the enemy. The enemy also knew the damage caused and treated members of the machine gun regiment differently to those in other parts of the army. If they were captured they were tortured and killed rather than sent to prison camps. They could not stay in one firing position for long because as soon as they began firing the enemy would target them with everything they could throw at them. Basically it was an even tougher job than regular units in the trenches of France and Belgium with a much lower life expectancy.
Despite many close shaves her great uncle survived through to the end of the war unharmed although he knew his chances were small ... Kirsty had letters from her great uncle to family members back home that showed how ready he was to accept death, some very moving examples. So he was more than happy when the end came on 11th Nov 1918 and even more happy when the notice came through that he was to return to the UK on 26th November ...
Unfortunately he became ill the day before he was due to leave for home, he was one of the unfortunates who survived the war only to be struck with Spanish flu and he lost his life a few days later.
To put things in perspective the First World War took the lives of 15million combatants and civilians in the extreme and bloody circumstances. To lose so many, mainly young men, was devastating to whole communities that must have taken decades to recover from. I'm sure that if you were to look through the electoral registers in the UK for the early 1920's the number of households with only a woman and her children would tell the story far better than I can. But is this just because of the casualties of war?Obviously I had heard about the Spanish flu pandemic that followed the Great War, with recent cases of bird and swine flew the reporters always seem to report that the new outbreaks may be as bad as the Spanish flu pandemic. The Spanish flu spread throughout the world between 1918 (during the last months of the war) and 1920. It struck all, the young, the old, the healthy and the weak but what was unusual was that it mainly killed the strongest members of the population. By some strange misfortune those with the strength to fight the disease did so with such vigour that it caused their bodies to give up and often led to death. Those with weaker immune systems were able to ride the storm and pass through without the internal struggle of those with the strength to fight. What is most shocking is the scale of death in a world already ravaged by the destruction of war. Over three times as many people died from influenza during 1918-1920 than in the previous four years of war. Conservative estimates put the figure at 50million with some estimates at almost double that. It leaves me speechless in a way, we've all heard of the First World War, The Great War or The War to End All Wars ... most have probably heard of Spanish flu but to think that so many perished from one or two generations, that man could be so cruel and nature even crueler is almost inconceivable. For so many to have survived such terrible hardship and daily fear and then be taken by natures will.