Friday 13th August: Living By Numbers: Adding To History!

Today is Friday 13th August 2010. 95 years ago today my great uncle William lost his life in the Aegean Sea as the ship on which he was travelling, the conscripted Royal Edward, sank into history as the first ocean going liner and troop carrier to be sunk by enemy fire in the 20th century. That too was Friday 13th August. 1000 men lost their lives within six minutes as a single torpedo struck courtesy of a German submarine. Their bodies were simply consigned to the deep: the great ‘lost at sea’. Any soldier that died in action during most of the two world wars was buried where they fell, primarily because of the sheer numbers of war dead and the impractical and logistical impossibility of repatriation. Imagine, if you can, the horror that would greet the news that 1000 men had been killed in Afghanistan in one single action. The difference is made even more sobering when one remembers that most of those killed in both world wars were conscripted private soldiers, unlike the highly trained professional army’s of today. According To figures maintained by the BBC the number of British military personnel killed on operations in Afghanistan since 2001 stands at 322 (as at 17th July 2010). Of all those killed, 39 have died from accidents, illness, or non-combat injuries. Others have yet to be assigned a cause of death. Figures: all statistics are a cold thing. They are void of feeling or emotion, presenting one with stark facts on which we may, in this instance, draw conclusion. A military leader might find these figures encouraging given the sheer scale and intensity of the fighting. Yet the people of Wootton Bassett and the rest of the country are haunted by the sight of yet another returning soldier. Today’s war dead are identified and brought home for their devastated families and friends to grieve: to mourn: to come to terms. In 2004 my book about the Royal Edward was published and I can honestly say that one of the most poignant and defining pieces of research involved in the whole process was the listing of every individual that died that morning in 1915: it made them real. Often we can be blinded by great numbers which hide the sheer horror of an individuals torment. I find it easier to wipe out an entire nest of ants with a single kettle of boiling water than to kill an individual. Perspective is not always easy to maintain when clouded by headlines or the sensational. In 2008 the Daily Telegraph surveyed 24 police forces in the UK which found that 461 people had been murdered on our own doorsteps in a single year. In 2009 1,100 people lost their lives in plane crashes. In 2007, 646 pedestrians were killed in road accidents in Great Britain and, as a reminder, 322 army professionals were killed in Afghanistan over a nine year period: around 35 a year. Figures: what would you do with them?

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