I’VE often wondered what I’d be doing if I lived 100 years ago.
This year particularly has made me wonder that even more.
I am a 21-year-old ‘man’ form Chatham, fresh out of university with an Upper 2:1 BA (Hons) degree in Journalism. A century ago this would not have been the case, especially since my university, Southampton Solent, received its status less than a decade ago. One hundred years ago I probably would have left school at 16 and gone to work at Chatham Dockyard.
I returned home from university for the last time 99 years and 365 days after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Had I just finished university back then, this event would naturally be in my mind. So would this country’s slide into war with Germany, which was declared 100 years ago today.
Being the patriotic type I know I would have been one of the first to sign up at the local recruitment office for four reasons. One) I would have been itching to teach Johnny Foreigner a lesson. Two) I’d have believed the Empire was mighty enough to get the job done, just in time to be home for Christmas. Three) I’d be leaving no job or girlfriend behind. And four) having just finished university I could really have used the free Shilling.
Now I ask myself, “how long would I have lived for at the front?”
If I joined the Navy, and knowing my luck, I probably would have been one of 1,500 sailors who perished when three of Chatham’s ships, Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy, were sunk by a U-boat on 22nd September 1914 – a week before what would have been my 22nd birthday. Or, I’d have died on 26th November 1914, when HMS Bulwark exploded in the River Medway.
Had I joined the Army, I probably would have been assigned to the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. They fought in the Battle of Mons in the first weeks of the war. But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database lists Private E. Jones of Dover as the regiment’s only fatality pre-September 1914.
Before the end of 1914 their losses was 16. Thirty-nine more men were killed during 1915, an average of one every 9.4 days. The number of losses in 1916 was 84, and one name in the records jumped out at me.
Private T.C. Grinsted, a 20-year-old killed on 13th July 1916, who is buried in the Chatham Cemetery on the Maidstone Road. The Battle of Albert concluded on that very day, and saw the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, where 19,240 British troops were killed on the opening day. Given the unprecedented number of deaths on that day, I highly doubt that if I was there I would survive.
But given the sheer number of troops and their movements during those four years, this is just one of many possible outcomes. I may have ended up in the Middle East or India for all I know.
What I have learnt whilst writing this is something I’ve suspected for many years. Speculating and researching this topic is interesting, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like to find this out for real.