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No Greater Sacrifice

As the United Kingdom marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War there is much talk of sacrifice and lost generations. But I can’t help noticing that all too often the focus when it comes to a lost generation is on the private school boys. With the British media dominated by the Chattering Classes perhaps this is not surprising. They are talking about their own great-great-grandfathers and great-grandfathers. In an economic system dedicated to the maintenance of privilege very few private school boys served in the ranks. They were junior officers and junior officers in those days led from the front. An officer in the First World War was twice as likely to be killed than a private. But the fact is that very few men who were involved in the early fighting came through to the end unscathed. The tidal wave of working class volunteers who mobbed the recruiting offices in 1914 and early 1915, which included a disproportionate number of Scots, were to die or be crippled in the scrub of Gallipoli or the mud of the Somme or Passchendaele. The working class volunteers were truly among the country’s brightest and best. Perhaps the loss to the country of so many proven natural leaders and skilled craftsmen hit Britain harder than the loss of so many potential lawyers, colonial civil servants and would-be poets. Perhaps the working class sacrifice was all the more remarkable because the men died to maintain an economic and social system which dictated that because they were born in an industrial slum their prospects in life were far grimmer than a child born to attend private school.The widows and children of the dead officers were certainly better looked after following the war. Was sacrifice of the officers and their families really any greater?

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