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Lest we forget. World War One in numbers: Remembrance Sunday

On Remembrance Sunday 2018 we look at the number of men drafted into the armed forces between 1914 and 1918 and put that number into perspective using numbers from 2018 employers.

This Sunday is Remembrance Sunday. Exactly 100 years since the end of World War 1.

Today, it’s hard for us to imagine the impact of World War 1 on society. I’ve tried to think of it in terms of the numbers of employees dragged away to suffer. Unsurprisingly, the statistics are numbing.

In 1914, the UK mainland population stood at around 43 million. Approximately, 5% were unemployed. Again, precise statistics are hard to pin down as figures were estimated according to the numbers enrolled in what was then the new National Insurance scheme. But, with an estimated working population (aged over 16 years) in the region of 26 million men and women, we can assume that 1.3 million were without work.

Between 1914 and 1918, around six million men were mobilised. England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales still accounted for 86% of those troops. That means that over 5 million men were affected.

It would be wrong to assume that all those unemployed were automatically called up. Many of the 1.3 million would have been too old, or not well enough, to be conscripted.

Either way, let’s make the assumption that 4.5 million men were drafted into the armed forces between 1914 and 1918. This means that around 18% of the working population were enrolled in the armed forces.

Let’s put that number into perspective using numbers from 2018 employers.

If we combine the entire workforce of the NHS in England, Wales and Scotland; the BBC; all government departments; every employee of BP, Shell and HSBC (worldwide); every employee working on the railways, directly and indirectly, and every person working in the marketing sector in the UK, then we are still woefully short of that number.

In fact, you would need to include the global employee population of McDonalds (1.9 million) to hit that number.

Those numbers are mind-boggling, and we forget them at our peril. It’s estimated that 700,000 UK soldiers were killed during the conflict and 1.3 million wounded.

That resulted in significant changes to our demographics. Looking at the 1921 census, there is a significant drop in the number of men aged between 20 and 40. However a baby boom after the war spiked numbers upwards meaning that during the early to mid-thirties, at the time of the great crash, there were large numbers of mouths to feed, still too young to work, but sadly the generation that would go on to feel the brunt of World War 2.

In 2015, we were privileged to be asked to design a set of stamps for the Royal Mail that recognised what that generation had done during the Battle of Britain. They were, “the few”. They helped change the course of a war. But, war affects the lives of many people. Many people who, in 1913, were not unlike you and I; going about our business; living out our lives; doing work we enjoyed some days and could do without on others.

Lest we forget.

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