Forty-three times twenty-six plus fifty-two

It isn’t a maths test, although of course it is. It’s the number of dead from the London Borough of Barking alone, in the years 1914 to 1918. Thier names were listed on plaques on thier memorial in the park. I didn’t have a pen so I needed a way to remember the numbers I’d counted.

In case your maths is rusty, it’s 1,170. A lot of the names are the same and while I can think well, obviously a lot of people are called Smith or White, when a surname is Wiffen and there are two sad inscriptions with different initials after them, they have to be related and I’d guess, closely.

Appropriately, death in the shape of a bullet or a lungful of gas or simply being atomised by an artillery shell or drowning in mud being no great respecter of rank, there are no inscriptions on the plaques on the memorial in the park to tell us now whether they were corporals or private soldiers or colonels. If you read anything about the First World War of course, you’ll know that only rarely, when a stray shell obligingly evened things-up did the most senior officers get killed or even wounded by anything more directed than gout or a heart attack.

One of Britain’s most lauded sons, Earl Haig, never bothered to visit the front line trenches at all. He was the man who condemned the ‘cowardice’ of the Pals battalions when they failed to advance to his satisfaction. In his mind they were shirkers, riddled with blue funk as a function largely of them being working class chaps; in reality they were riddled with Spandau bullets, failing to ‘do their bit’ due to the inconvenience of being dead. Prior to that he’d issued orders forbidding them to fire while they advanced; they hadn’t had much training, they couldn’t hit a grouse rising off heather and all in all it would just have wasted ammunition, he felt.

As it was, the artillery barrage supposed to stop the German machine guns only stopped them while the barrage was on. When it lifted and the whistles blew to advance in the British trenches the boys from the factories and potteries and mines rushed up their ladders and walked, as ordered, across No Mans Land. They’d had tin triangles sewn onto the back of their packs so the General Staff could see where they were from a safe distance. Through binoculars it was clear the attack bogged down early, the triangles not moving. The Pals brigades weren’t funking it. They were dead.

It can’t be unreasonable to doubt the sanity of anyone who ordered the exact same action again and again and again, year after year after year, Michael Gove.

The memorial didn’t give the dates or the locations of the sons of this forgotten borough whose glory days ended in a hail of copper-jacketed munitions. Walking around Barking you can see the ghosts of ┬áproud buildings erected between about 1890 and 1914. There’s a fine Magistrates Court embellished with Art Nouveau curlicues and at the entrance to Barking Park itself a little Nursery with round windows sporting elongated keystones which presumably was given to the Park Keeper in the days when massively-subsidised housing wasn’t seen as akin to choice-robbing Communism. The First War killed more than just people. Go to Barking and look around.

 

 

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