As the Great War centenary commemorations get under way, there is an opportunity to look more closely at the realities of the conflict. RUSI’s Roll of Honour, listing the more than 500 members of the Institute who died between August 1914 and November 1918, is one such window on the past.
The Blackadder view of the First World War was wonderful entertainment but it never conveyed much underlying truth. It made us laugh so it didn’t need to. It wove jokes around well-known stereotypes and that’s always funny.
But the Roll of Honour drawn from the RUSI Archive is a sobering reminder of how false those stereotypes really are. RUSI’s members at that time were all officers and they joined the Institute because they were thinking officers. They wanted to belong to a club that studied war and world politics. They were not brothers or cousins from one family; they did not come mainly from one profession or one part of the country. They did not constitute a Pals Battalion. They were a diverse group of men united only by a desire to think more carefully about their military profession. They represent a unique cross section of the British Army, Royal Navy and, from 1918, the Royal Air Force.
What does this Roll of Honour tell us that is so un-stereotypical? Over 500 RUSI members were killed during the war, from the Battle of Mons in August 1914 to the Battle of the Selle and the final advance into Picardy in October 1918. Seven of them were awarded the Victoria Cross. These 500 are not predominantly junior subalterns. In fact, only a small proportion of them are. It is remarkable how many senior ranks are listed here among the dead. The roll contains high numbers of Captains and Majors and a surprising number of Lieutenant Colonels and Colonels, multiple Brigadier Generals and some Major Generals alongside naval Commanders and two Rear Admirals.
Senior officers were certainly not beyond mortal danger and death did not only occur in the trenches. Six of RUSI’s seven VCs were awarded to men of the rank of Major or above. The seven included a Captain, two Majors, two Lieutenant Colonels and two Brigadier Generals.
The Roll of Honour also shows astonishing numbers of awards for leadership: Military Crosses for gallantry and Distinguished Service Orders for dedicated combat leadership; membership and commanders of the Royal Victorian Order; recognitions of long and distinguished leadership in the Volunteer and Territorial Forces; and many honours bestowed by King George V.
Unlike other such rolls there are no runs of family names or predominant regiments or military branches. These men impress as a list of individuals. And they impress because they fought in every arm, everywhere and in every major campaign. They died in and out of the trenches, leading and being led, and they were a loss to the profession of military thinking, ‘without a knowledge of which,’ as Winston Churchill said in his last speech at RUSI in 1950, ‘no nation can be sure it will survive’.
To characterise the British warriors of the First World War as ‘lions led by donkeys’ as the politician Alan Clark did in the 1960s is a stereotype that insults the memory of all those who served and those who died. At least Blackadder was genuinely funny. The RUSI Roll of Honour stands as a silent and dignified testament to the complexity of real war fought by real people.
Access RUSI's Roll of Honour here: https://www.rusi.org/GreatWar/RollofHonour/
Professor Michael Clarke