Each Remembrance Day, we pause to remember the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War. As we reflect on the sacrifices made by those in service, we also pause to remember the toll WWI had on families and communities throughout Britain.
Across the UK, approximately 700,000 British soldiers died during the First World War – about 1.7 per cent of the total UK population at the time – but research shows the level of loss was significantly higher in some areas than it was in others.
By analysing the UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919 collection and the 1911 Census by Ancestry, we have found that the town of Durham tragically lost nearly eight per cent of its population during the First World War, with Derby (5.64%) and Dumfries (4.79%) also badly affected.
According to the research, the 10 UK towns that lost the highest percentages of their populations in the First World War were:
At the start of the war it became clear very quickly that Britain’s small but well-trained army was not large enough to handle the scale of the conflict. Thousands of men volunteered for service, with many groups of friends and family signing up to fight together. These battalions with local ties became known as ‘Pals Battalions’. Heavy recruitment of untrained soldiers as part of such battalions took place in towns in northern England and Scotland and they suffered significant casualties.
Many Pals Battalions did not see their first action until the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), and the heavy losses experienced there and elsewhere were catastrophic for the towns they had been formed in, especially those with smaller populations to begin with. Durham had six such battalions, and Derby had two, which go some way towards accounting for the higher than average mortality rates.
Scotland was very badly affected by the First World War, with six Scottish towns among the 10 most affected in terms of percentages of their population killed fighting. National pride, peer pressure and a desire for adventure with a Pals Battalion were among the reasons for sign-ups, while army pay was also a factor for many.
Sadly, many men did not return to their towns. Large Scottish towns like Dumfries and Perth suffered but so too did smaller towns like Lanark, which had a population of just 5,900 in 1911 and lost 4% of that population to the war.
In terms of sheer numbers, the UK’s most populous city, London, suffered the highest number of losses. Significant numbers of soldiers joined the war effort from other large cities like Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham too, many not to return.
“The First World War was devastating for communities across the UK,” says Ancestry Senior Content Manager, Miriam Silberman. “Sadly, many brave soldiers did not return to their cities, towns and villages, leaving friends and families bereft. It may be a century ago, but their communities and the country as a whole honour their bravery today.
“Remembrance Day is an emotive time as we honour those who have died for our country, many of whom were from where we grew up or are even family members.”