Last year, the common wisdom was that 2016 had been a terrible year, with one major factor being the deaths of various celebrities. Earlier this year, I discussed this in connection with long-dead celebrities, suggesting that we had forgotten how much life expectancy has improved in modern times. But my first thought was “2016 has to have been a lot better than 1916”.

Now it’s the end of the year, and I don’t recall hearing much from friends about people who had died in 2017, though I myself wrote a brief tribute to Alan Simpson after his death in February. I looked through a long list of celebrities who had died in 2017, and few of them were people I knew much about. But I think 2017 is similar to 2016: Even if the death toll was significant, I still think it is a much better time to live than 1917. Because during the war many people died young. Very young.

1916 takes us to the middle of World War 1, a war involving Europe, the Middle East, and much of the British Empire (including Australia). Much of the action was on the Western Front in France, which had settled into stalemate in the trenches punctuated by massive attempts to advance.

It was not clear that either side was winning. Both sides struggled to develop better weapons and achieve tactical superiority, but it was clear that it could be a numbers game. Both sides suffered heavy casualties while making comparatively small advances, and the war might just be won by the side that still had men left standing.

The Battle of the Somme

The two major battles of 1916 were the Battle of Verdun (a German advance intended to capture a key position and bleed the French of men), and the Battle of the Somme (A Franco-British advance, intended to capture German-held ground, but also to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun). To my mind calling them “battles” is a bit misleading: they were really prolonged campaigns with various sub-battles. The Battle of the Somme began in July and ended in November, while the Battle of Verdun lasted most of the year, beginning in February and only ending in December.

As the French became increasingly occupied with defending Verdun, the Battle of the Somme became largely a British affair. Just on the first day there had been 58,000 British casualties, including over 19,000 deaths.

From an Australian perspective, we usually hear of Gallipoli and the Anzacs. And that makes sense: it has become an important part of our national identity. But there were plenty of Australians on the Western Front. In fact, the Battle of the Somme saw 23,000 Australian casualties and 6,600 Australian deaths - not a lot less than those during the Gallipoli campaign.

The initial advance started at 7:30 AM on July 1, 1916 with three blasts of a whistle, and in 2016 there were whistle blasts across Europe in remembrance of it. I don’t know how much attention the centenary got in Australia, but I was in the UK at the time and it was big. On the day itself I was visiting ancient Stonehenge, and all I heard about the Somme was references to the red poppies growing across the countryside (including in the Stonehenge car park).

What brought it home to me was a week later at Caernarfon Castle in Wales (the legal seat of the Prince of Wales). At the time, they were commemorating the battle for Mametz Wood, which the 38th (Welsh) Division had fought for from 7 - 12 July, 1916. Letters from soldiers back home were read out. There were demonstrations of bayonet field drills which had been recreated from a 1914 drill-book (quite scary to watch, really). There were also plenty of World War 1 artefacts from a private collection. Some were in good condition: things like uniforms, guns, field glasses, and telephones. Others had been dug up from the Mametz Wood site only the week before, including rusted barbed wire, shells, and bullets:

Artefacts from Mametz Wood

The battle itself had high casualties on both sides, and many of the trees in the wood were shattered during the fighting. Many of those fighting would have been younger than me, with all life’s potential before them. And yet, not only did many die, but their efforts did not achieve lasting success. The Germans recaptured the wood within weeks, and held it till the end of the war. Most writers try to spin this to be a positive, some variant of “valour is its own reward”. And those who participated do have a kind of immortality in their deeds (there is even a Welsh dragon on the site as a memorial), but it’s hard not to think that they could have achieved more in life if they hadn’t had to go to war. And I think it’s sobering that the rusted artefacts of the battle have lasted even longer than those who survived the battle.

So, overall, did the Battle of the Somme succeed? Well, that seems contentious. Depending on point of view, it was either a futile battle of attrition which lost vast numbers of men without achieving its territorial objectives, or a key turning point which started to break the German morale and gave the initiative to the Allies.

But no amount of success can change the fact that there were many potential future greats in the battle. Some survived, and we know what they achieved after the war. We will never know what those who didn’t survived might have achieved.

The Home Front

Those in the war had to come to terms with killing other people and with the deaths of their friends and fellow soldiers. Those at home had a completely different set of stresses. Wives and mothers in particular lived in daily dread of the telegram saying that their husband or son was dead, injured, captured, or just “missing, believed dead”. Many of those signing up had married hastily, and were able to spend very little time with their wives. Some of these would be left widows with children to worry about, maybe even children that the father had never had a chance to see.

But it wasn’t just worries about loved ones: shortages in supplies affected both civilians and the military. The British Navy had been blockading the Germans and restricting imports for the duration of the war. The Germans had responded with “unrestricted submarine warfare”: sinking of merchant ships in British waters, even ships of neutral countries like the US. While this was suspended during 1916, it returned in 1917 and led to the sinking of hundreds of ships with their cargoes and crews.

The British did not begin official rationing until 1918 (though some foods were harder to obtain). Germany were much harder hit, and had started introducing rationing in 1916 to try and ensure everyone got a fair share. Many obtained additional food on the black market, but not everyone could afford that. Not only were they cut off from imports, but war demands meant they were able to produce significantly less food than in pre-war days. Shortages were everywhere, thousands of substitute foods had to be approved and used, and there was malnourishment everywhere (see here for more).


From the start of the war, France and Germany had had a form of conscription and considerably larger standing and reserve armies than Britain. Britain’s armies were also more used to dealing with tribal skirmishes throughout the British Empire than dealing with well-equipped European armies. However, as the war went on they scrambled to catch up.

Many of those in Britain and Australia volunteered to go to war. Perhaps the most common reasons would have been to do their duty, have a great adventure, or “fight for king and country”. However, as the number of potential recruits dwindled, both countries looked to introduce conscription. In January 1916, Britain succeeded in introducing conscription for those between the age of 18 and 41. In Australia the issue of conscription was hard fought and went to two referendums, but ultimately failed (though it was later introduced in World War 2).

Maybe some of those who were conscripted would have eventually volunteered anyway, but to me it adds an ugly element: some of those who nobly “gave their life for their country” were not even nominally there of their own choice. It also had the potential to increase the human toll on all the nations involved: Some have argued that introducing conscription did little other than increasing the death toll, because it allowed the generals on both sides to rely on tactics which cost more men.

On to 1917

As I discussed when talking about the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in November, America entered the war in 1917, but even then it wasn’t clear who was going to win the war. In taking Jerusalem Britain had given the public a victory by Christmas, but Russia was disengaging from the war, leaving the Germans free to concentrate on breaking through on the Western Front.

It was still a hard time to be young.

Lost potential

Consider the Australian composer F.S. Kelly. His pre-war output is said to be similar to that of Vaughan Williams, and his works are only now beginning to be rediscovered with the centenary of World War 1. He survived Gallipoli, but was killed near the end of the Battle of the Somme. Before his death he wrote of a number of other compositions he had in his head but never got the time to write down. And who knows what he might have achieved if he had had years longer?

Another death was the poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed at age 25, only a week before armistice. He is best known for his war poems (my favourite being the Parable of the Old Man and the Young). But again, who knows what works he could have produced if he had been able to turn his pen to a post-war peace?

And those are just a couple of the people that we know about. I’m sure there were many younger than me, teenagers perhaps, who could have been greats if only they had had a little more time.

The aftermath

The Armistice in 1918 stopped the war, but it didn’t fix all the problems. Some soldiers able to return to a relatively normal life, but others returned permanently changed, some with visible life-long injuries, others with mental scars. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (known then as “shell-shock”) was typically poorly understood, and not always properly treated. For some, the mental scars and the silence never completely went away, and the war was just a subject that was never talked about. Some turned to alcohol in an effort to forget. And some ended up taking their own lives. They carried a heavy burden that I have no wish to carry, and many of them had to assume that burden when they were considerably younger than me.

And the damage wasn’t just limited to the returning soldiers. Those who had been killed left grieving parents and family. Some left widows and children. And even when the husband had returned, some wives had to deal with husbands who were no longer the same person they had married. Children had to re-learn what life was like with their father present. I’m sure there were many difficult situations. Sometimes, those who were in them were able to adjust. Other times, it was all too much.

How many of these survivors and their families were kept from reaching their full potential?

Some survivors

Some of those who we now recognise as greats had nothing published before the war. People like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Ernest Hemingway. Had they died, the world would be a different place. Not only would we not know their works, but we would not know the works of others who have been inspired by reading them.

Ernest Hemingway wasn’t yet 19 when he was wounded during the war. He commented:

When you go to war as a boy you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you. Then when you are badly wounded the first time you lose that illusion and you know it can happen to you.

In the preface of the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.

Their experiences during the war certainly affected their works. In the case of Tolkien, he fought in the Somme, and the Dead Marshes and the desolation when approaching Mordor were influenced by his experiences during that time. Sam Gamgee’s role, pressing on and supporting his master, was partially drawn from his image of the British private doing his duty. Tolkien was actually working on an early version of his mythology while in the trenches (and he wasn’t the only creative person who used their creativity as a form of escape).

Why this matters

There is a big difference between those who died in 1916 and my list of past celebrities: Though some on my list had short lives by our standards, all of them were older than me, and had achieved great things. Similarly, most of the celebrities who died in 2016 (and 2017) were older than me, and they were known for their achievements.

In contrast, many of those who died in WW1 were younger than me. Quite a few had enlisted straight out of school when not yet 18, and did not last very long in the trenches. Others survived, but were left changed for life. They were not celebrities. They were just ordinary people dealt a raw hand by their country who had to make the best of it.

I’m not trying to make my age the arbiter of when is a more or less significant time to die: In today’s society, not only do we not expect people my age to die, but we do not expect people my parents’ age to die. Death can be a tragedy at any age, but it feels more of a tragedy when people are younger and seem to have so much potential before them.

I have been reading a lot of Douglas Adams in the last few months. He died at age 49 more than 15 years ago, and it is sobering to realise that even if he had died now at age 65 we would still have considered it too young. Eighteen just happens to be a lot younger.


It is right to grieve for those who have influenced us powerfully, whether they be close relatives, role models, or celebrities. It is right to grieve for potential that has been lost, particularly when greats die too young. But I think it is also right to grieve for those who died so young that they never really got a chance, whether it was because they were killed in war, died of disease, or any of a host of other reasons. I would like us as a civilisation to work together to try and make sure more people get a chance, whether by trying to reduce conflict with each other, trying to improve the way we treat diseases, or by making more opportunities available.

2016 and 2017 both had disquieting events, and there are certainly wars around the world. I’m not suggesting our world is perfect. But at least in the Western world I think we are a lot better off than those fighting in the trenches in World War 1. We are also better off than the civilians caught in the middle of that war, particularly those in Germany.

To grieve for celebrities lost is perfectly understandable. But to think it as bad as conditions 100 or 200 years ago? I don’t think so. I’d like us to recognise historically how good we have it, while still trying to improve the world for everyone in it.