Britain entered World War I in the summer of 1914, a conflict that would become known as the Great War and one of the deadliest in human history, resulting in over 37 million deaths worldwide before its end in November 1918. Of these deaths, more than 9 million would be British soldiers.
At the time, The Undertakers’ Journal told readers that “Britons can do no more than ‘gird up their loins’ for the great cause of justice and freedom”, comparing bravery at home to the courage faced by soldiers on the battlefield.
In the same issue, it was noted that undertakers were likely to face considerable trade during the war, and warned against the temptation of high profit: “We trust – nay, we feel sure – no undertaker will permit himself to turn ‘money wolf’ by putting up prices… as some are doing with their food stores.
“Let the trade remember that there will be more business for them rather than less, for the reason that many of the better sort who have joined ambulance and other corps have already been called up to serve king and country and probably many more will be called before the war is over.”
The first of these courageous fallen were eight sailors, four British and four German, who died during combat between the German ship Königen Luise and the British cruiser Amphion. The bodies of all eight soldiers were carried to Shotley Barracks in Suffolk before being buried together with full honours of war.
Despite being enemies of war, the German sailors were accorded honour and respect equal to that shown to the British. The Undertakers’ Journal described the scene: “Three volleys were fired over their graves and a British bugle sounded the stirring notes of the Last Post over their resting place.
“First in the procession was a firing party from the Ganges carrying rifles reversed and then a country wagon drawn by two heavy dray horses containing eight coffins, four covered by the union jack and four by the German Ensign.
“It was a long march in drenching rain through a deserted countryside but wherever cottages were, there stood the inhabitants bare-headed paying a silent tribute to the memory of the brave dead of both nations.”
This peaceful tribute to the first victims of war belied the horrors that were in wait for Europe and the rest of the world, but did much to emphasize the never-waning importance in Britain for dignity and honour, even in death.