As I write this, the nation has just commemorated the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Britain declared itself to be in a state of war with Germany on 4th August 1914. Men in their thousands enlisted. Volunteering was seen as heroic, dutiful, romantic even, earning almost universal approval. The horrors of war were yet to be unleashed. Some 7,000 solicitors and articled clerks answered the call and joined the armed forces, and around 900 of them gave their lives.
One of them was Cecil Harold Sewell, who enlisted at the age of 20 when he was an articled clerk to his father. He was one of only 628 recipients of the Victoria Cross awarded during the war and, apparently, the only one who had entered the legal profession before the outbreak of the war. Having risked his own life to save the lives of his comrades who were trapped in an overturned tank, he was fatally wounded while tending to the wounded driver of his own tank. He was 23. His two brothers were also killed in the war.
In his commemoration speech, David Cameron spoke of “the teenagers who fought in fields around here [Belgium] – terrified and missing home. The men who laid down their lives for their friends. The veterans who were never the same again. The families who bore their silent wounds”. One hundred years ago, the war had only just started. It was meant to be all over by Christmas. Over four years later, around 16 million soldiers and civilians had been killed and 20 million wounded. The lights truly went out on a generation.