Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, May 21, 2018

Did the British Upper Class Get Off Lightly in the Great War?

Cadet Corps at Eton Drilling

No, says the BBC in this 2014 article.

Although the great majority of casualties in WWI were from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately hard by the war. Their sons provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.

Some 12 percent of the British Army's ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17 percent of its officers. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils—20 percent of those who served. UK wartime prime minister Herbert Asquith lost his son Raymond, while future prime minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother of his was terribly wounded, and an uncle was captured.

Grave of Lt. Raymond Asquith at the Somme


  1. I wonder how that changed over the next 100 years.
    In the US, serving in the military has become largely the province of the working classes and the poor.

    1. A very late response...of course you know the British upper class participation in war was traditional. The nobility owed their allegiance to the king and they were expected to defend the king and country in war, and hence they went forth as officers.
      In the US we never had that kind of quid pro quo. As a whole citizens serve out of duty, but duty does not tap the shoulders of the rich in general. Even the draft can be avoided by those of means. Our "upper classes" give the orders, but generally do not serve in battle. Of course there are exceptions, and heroes are made from all citizens.

  2. You've got that right, Bryan, but I think America's elite retreat from their responsibilities goes back at least to World War II. At the University Club in New York, the members who were killed in the two world wars face each other in the lobby. Although there were more than 3 times the number of deaths in World War 2 suffered by the US, only 8 members are listed as having been killed in WW2 as opposed to 20 in WW1.

    1. That's a great example.
      I've seen similar monumental differences in some universities.

  3. A comment not about the details but about the statement at the top of the article. "No, says the BBC in this 1914 article".

    This has to be an error since the BBC did not exist until after World War One.

    Probably should be edited.

  4. Good catch, Paul. It was a 2014 BBC article. Correction made. Thanks.