Recently I read about Amy Beechey of Avondale Street, Lincoln, and her story has stayed in my mind ever since.
The Beecheys were one of only three families in the country to lose five sons in the First World War. According to the BBC, when, in 1918, Amy Beechey was thanked for her tremendous sacrifice by Queen Mary, Mrs Beechey replied: “It was no sacrifice ma’am. I did not give them willingly.” Amy died in 1956 and is buried in Newport Cemetery.
Despite my dad having spent his career in the army and my having grown up in military communities, now I have a child myself I genuinely can’t imagine how I could possibly let him go off to fight, let alone deal with the prospect of losing him. The thought that Mrs Beechey lost five sons is a scale of loss somehow beyond my comprehension.
This is, broadly speaking, how I often feel about the First World War as a whole: it was a conflict involving losses so huge (16 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives) that every time I’m reminded of the scale, I am staggered all over again.
This year, 100 years on from the outbreak of war in 1914, is a unique opportunity to reflect on a conflict which touched every family and affected every community. Of more than 16,000 villages across the country in 1914, only 40 would reach 1918 without having lost a serviceman in battle.
This year and in the following three years, people will mark this historic anniversary and pay tribute to the thousands who laid down their lives in a multitude of different ways. There will be national and international events — most notably on 4th August 2014, the anniversary of the outbreak of war — but of course there will be numerous local commemorations and events here in Lincoln too.
I’m particularly looking forward to the five exhibitions chronicling the Great War from the point of view of Lincolnshire residents, and the accompanying series of lectures, at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life. Incidentally, this is also where Mrs Beechey’s sons’ letters to her from the front are exhibited.
Our city’s vital role in the war is well-documented, particularly with regard to the invention of the tank. In 1916, the world’s first fighting tank left the William Foster and Co factory, a landmark which historians believe shortened the Great War significantly. We were also a major centre for aircraft manufacturing, with over 3,000 aircraft taking off from the West Common for onward delivery to the Royal Flying Corps on the frontline.
Significantly, it was Lincoln women as well as men who worked in our tank and aircraft factories, and kept our war effort going with so many men away at the front. Women had previously not been deemed appropriate for such work, and this is a very good example of how the First World War changed British social attitudes forever.
Prior to the war, most working men and no women had the vote; this changed very soon afterwards. The war was also an important landmark in our history as a multicultural country. More than 1.2 million people from across the Commonwealth served in the British war effort, including soldiers from India, the West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.
The next four years therefore offer us all a chance to reflect on the huge significance of the Great War to our nation’s and to global history. Most importantly of all however, it is an opportunity to commemorate, in a fitting and respectful way, the service and the sacrifice of the millions of men and women who laid down their lives in this long and costly conflict.