453 men

The town of Hitchin lost 453 men during the First World War. For a town of 12,000, that meant that roughly 50% of the men aged between 20 and 30 were killed in the war. This shocking and startling fact should force us to reflect on the cost of war – and its emotional and psychological impact on a nation.

At today’s memorial service at St. Mary’s Church, all 453 names were read out. It took quite some time. Among those names were 6 Barkers, 9 Browns, 5 Chalkeys, 4 Haggers, 4 Hawkins, 4 Jameses, 4 Primetts, 10 Smiths and 6 Tomlins. These figures bear testimony to the families who lost several members – perhaps fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, uncles or nephews. It’s beyond my human comprehension to understand how it must feel to lose several family members to war. What must have been the emotional response to the government who had taken us to war? To the Generals? The the Germans? To God?

The war was no respecter of background. The men of Hitchin were killed along with the Accrington Pals, the sons of aristocrats along with the sons of miners; the graduates of Cambridge along with the graduates of the “school of hard knocks”.  It was a dreadfully equalizing war.

Throughout today’s service, my mind kept flashing back to my own great grandfather, Harry Cowx. He was a miner on the West Cumberland coalfield. His commute to work involved a four mile walk or buggy ride under the Irish Sea to the coalface. I would expect that he and his workmates would have seen the war as an opportunity to escape the awful grind of their daily working life. But when they reached the front, they would have faced horror beyond their worst nightmares. The West Cumberland coalfield had the highest death rate of any coalfield in Europe and in 1910, the Wellington Pit Disaster had killed 136 men . The war would take the lives of many more.

Harry served in the cavalry and, family legend has it, he kept having horses shot from under him. Despite this, he survived the war. He married shortly afterwards, had 5 children, 17 grandchildren and (something in the region of) 35 great-grandchildren. His descendants are scattered across the country and are in many walks of life. We are all beneficiaries of his legacy.

Harry died in 1964. I never met him – and that saddens me. I know where he lived, where he worked – and where he is buried. I know he was a Labour party activist. I don’t know what he would have made of his great granddaughter standing as a Labour Party parliamentary candidate – and commemorating his war 100 years on.