Research brings to light death toll amongst the junior officers

One of the enduring myths of the First World War was fashioned in the 1960s when Alan Clark (author of The Donkeys) and other revisionist writers were able to propagate the idea of an uncaring officer class willingly sacrificing the ordinary men in the ranks without a care for the numbers killed or maimed, and all in pursuit of foolhardy and impossible targets.

This caricature of the reality of the war culminated in the well-crafted final series of the Blackadder comedy.

It is perhaps worth noting, however, that the final episode and denouement of Blackadder saw all the officers who were so mercilessly lampooned in an extremely humorous series rush to their deaths in a climax which was said to be one of the most emotive and moving in any broadcast drama.

The reality of the war was the loss of many more officers proportionately than of serving other ranks.

A total of 232 of Brigadier-General rank and above were killed or wounded – 78 dying on active service.

After the first 12 month the losses of recently recruited junior officers, who had been drawn principally from a narrow elite group of leading public schools, reached such a level that the army was forced, albeit reluctantly, to look further amongst the educated but not so socially narrow class of grammar school men to replace the burgeoning loss of young men who had offered themselves in droves from Eton, Harrow, Winchester and similar elite bastions of the establishment.

The antidote to the glib offerings of Clark and others can be found in the superb story of the junior officers at company level and below, Six weeks – The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War [2010] by John Lewis-Stempel.

He comprehensively punctures the myth of an uncaring and remote class of officers lolling about in gilded chateaux at the rear, as the men suffered and died in the horrors of frontline trenches.

The facts of the courage and diligent caring for the men they led are the reminder of a time when duty and self-sacrifice were qualities taken for granted: so ingrained, that of all the combatant armies, only the British Army never suffered any significant loss of morale or disobedience by men in the frontline.

This is attributed in large part to the British policy of employing junior officers in large numbers to lead dangerous tasks (eg. wiring parties in no man’s land’); otherwise managed by NCOs in the allied and opposing armies.

The story of former pupils of Tynemouth High School who took promotion as temporary officers is now being researched by a volunteer who recently joined the project.

Already we have found that of 381 former pupils noted in the school’s Record of Service who were known to have been involved in military and merchant navy service during the war, some 65 took commissions as junior officers in the army.

Of these, 19 were killed – almost 30 per cent.

This figure is consistent with Stempel’s findings.

Losses reached such proportions that The Times was requested to cease publication of names of the dead so great was the loss amongst the sons of the establishment and consequent damage to morale.

John Lewis-Stempel is one of the leading authorities who have come forward to deliver one of the lectures the project has arranged jointly with Northumbria University.

He is giving his lecture, The experiences of junior officers at the front, at 6pm, on Tuesday, December 3, at the City Campus East site of Northumbria University – School of Law and Business building.

This is an opportunity to hear and put your questions to the author.

You can register interest in attending any of the lectures at

Lectures are free and open to the public on a first come basis, although pre-registration helps.

The lecture by Dr Martin Pugh, Women in the Greta War, attracted a large audience; confirming the rising tide of interest in the war.

Anyone with information on anyone killed or died as a result of the war is asked to contact the project.

The project workroom at Room B9, Linskill Community Centre, Trevor Terrace, North Shields, is open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for visitors and for anyone interested to learn more about the project or how to get involved.