Late in 1918 Germany sought an Armistice with the Western Powers and at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the guns across the Western Front ceased firing and the First World War came to a sudden and overwhelmingly silent end.
Many of West Buckland School’s young men signed up to fight or were conscripted. Some were sent to the Western Front in Belgium and France. Others went abroad to Italy, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), Egypt and Arabia and some fought at Gallipoli or with Colonial Forces in Eastern Africa. Others went to sea with the Royal Navy in warships and submarines across the globe . Some fought in the air, a new dimension in warfare, with the Royal Air Force formed on the 1st April 1918.
In the Summer of 1914 Europe descended into war. An aggressive Germany, wishing to assert its power declared war on France and Russia and launched attacks on both. A massive surprise attack through Luxembourg and neutral Belgium - known as the Von Schlieffen Plan, smashed all Belgian resistance as the Germans attempted to deny France access to the Channel Ports and seize Paris.
Britain mobilised and entered the war. By August 1914 Britain had deployed its comparatively small Army of around 100,000 men (about half Regular and half reservist) across the Channel alongside the French to block the German advance which they managed to do.
Towards the end of the Autumn the Germans withdrew into a series of well-prepared defensive positions on high ground in Southern Belgium and across Northern France. Thus setting the stage for the next three bloody and violent years of the war.
Hurriedly expanding armies now faced off against each other in the muddy fields of Flanders and France. The front stabilised, troops dug trenches deep into the wet Belgian and French soil and the war became static. For the next three years opponents fought a war dominated by trench systems, massed artillery, machine guns, barbed wire and images of a shattered no man’s land - a costly, awful war of attrition.
The First World War was arguably the first Global industrialised war. It was said to be the War that changed the face of Great Britain for ever; it accelerated the pace of change and altered the structure of the nation. It had a profound effect on the political, social, industrial and technological nature of society. The effects of many of these changes remain with us today. For instance:
The War was fought at enormous cost of blood and treasure. The effects were felt In every household. Every family lost a father, uncle, brother, son or cousin. There were great battles that were often repeated, assaults and counter assaults and the names of the places where these battles took place became indelibly imprinted on the minds of the wartime and subsequent generations; Vimy Ridge, Ypres, the Somme, Arras and Passchendale.
The scale of sacrifice is hard to comprehend but during the first morning of the Battle of the Somme, the British Army suffered 57,470 casualties – 19,240 men died in a storm of Artillery and machine gun fire between sun up and lunchtime.
Today the Battlefields of Flanders and France are littered with War Cemeteries that are looked after with amazing care by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemeteries seemingly lie at random, scattered across the gently rolling landscape. In reality, they represent the high water marks of successive battles. The bodies of these soldiers were collected and laid to rest near where they fell and those whose bodies were never recovered from the Battlefield are remembered there too.
Tyne Cot cemetery contains the graves of 11,954 British and Kiwi servicemen of which, 8,389 remain unidentified. Surrounding the cemetery stands a memorial wall that lists by Regiment, the names of soldiers who were killed in the great battles of Passchendaele but have no known grave – there are a staggering 34,991 of them. Thousands more names are recorded on the Menin Gate and at the Thiepval Memorial.
908,371 men and women from the UK and Commonwealth were killed in action in the First World War. A further 2,090,212 were wounded. Nearly 200,000 were taken prisoner or declared missing in action. Many of the fallen and missing have never been recovered. Their remains lie hidden in the soft earth where they fell.
In 1914 West Buckland School was a lot smaller than it is today with around 127 pupils on the school roll. The effects of the war were bound to be amplified in such a tight knit community. Many of its Old Boys and staff answered the call to arms and it is likely that several hundred of them would have served for the duration of the war.
The war was barely a few weeks old when the Headmaster, Mr Harries received grave news from the front. The first to fall was Capt HG Elliot of the 1st Bn The Devonshire Regiment. A former regular soldier and teacher at West Buckland. He was killed in action on the 20 September 1914. He was 33. More bad news was to follow. News of two more old boys who were killed in action before the year’s end on the 22nd and 29th of Dec and then an ever increasing number as the war years progressed and the ferocity of the fighting increased. When the guns fell silent 57 Old West Buckland Boys had either been killed in action or had died of their wounds.
The names of all 57 of these brave men who gave their lives in “the war to end all wars” are inscribed on the plaque at the rear of the Memorial Hall and we will hear all of their names later.
Today we are gathered here to remember the supreme sacrifice that they and many others made in the Great War and to remember the sacrifice that many Old West Buckland Boys have made in other Wars since.