World War I broke out on 28th July 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. It turned into a full-scale conflict involving more than 30 nations that lasted over four years.
As a result of advancements in military technologies and the horrific conditions of trench warfare, the Great War led to unprecedented levels of destruction and death. By the time it ended on 11th November 1918, over 16 million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives.
Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday are a national opportunity to pay tribute to the sacrifice and service of all those who gave their lives during World War I to protect our freedoms.
Each year, on Remembrance Day (a Saturday this year), a period of silence is held at 11am to mark the exact time that World War One ended. And on Remembrance Sunday, the royal family will lay wreaths at the Cenotaph, followed by another minute’s silence at 11am across the UK.
In light of these events and to help us remember some of the fallen, here are nine heroes of World War I.
1 & 2. Elizabeth Knocker (1884-1978) and Mairi Chisholm (1896-1981)
Elizabeth Knocker from Exeter and Mairi Chisholm from Buckinghamshire set up their own First Aid Post near the Belgian front line at Pervyse in November 1914.
As a trained nurse, Elizabeth believed that many lives could be saved if wounded soldiers were treated close to where they fell. Putting their lives at risk to save others, Elizabeth and Mairi often worked under fire – saving the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers on the Western Front. The pair only left Pervyse after being badly gassed in 1918.
Both Elizabeth and Mairi were awarded the Belgian Order of Leopold in 1915 and the British Military Medal in 1917 for their brave actions.
3. John Cornwell (1900-1916)
Young seaman Jack Cornwell from Essex was the youngest man to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. The Victoria Cross is the highest award for bravery that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth soldiers.
On 31st May 1916, during the Battle of Jutland, Jack was serving aboard HMS Chester. The ship came under intense fire, and all of Jack’s crew were either killed instantly or fatally injured.
Despite suffering severe wounds himself – including metal shards through his chest – Jack remained on his gun post for the duration of the battle. He died three days later, aged just 16 years old.
4. Edith Cavell (1865-1915)
Edith Cavell from Norwich was a British nurse, teacher, and lecturer who worked in various hospitals and schools across Shoreditch, Kings Cross, Manchester, and Brussels.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, hearing of the threat to Belgium from advancing German troops, Edith felt it was her duty to return to Brussels immediately. She made it clear to all other nurses under her care that their duty was to take care of the wounded, regardless of their nationality – and, as a Red Cross Hospital, both sides were to be treated equally.
For almost a year, Nurse Cavell provided 200 Allied soldiers shelter and a safe passage to the neutral Netherlands. However, when two of those involved in the underground network were discovered, Edith was arrested, tried, and executed by a German firing squad for her actions in 1915.
5. Captain Noel Chavasse (1884-1917)
Captain Noel Chavasse is one of only three people to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice, and the only person to receive the award twice during the First World War.
His first honour came as a result of his actions at the Somme, where he saved 20 men while he was wounded himself.
Noel’s second honour came after Passchendaele, where he lost his life. In his first attack at Passchendaele, Noel was wounded but refused to stop fighting, despite having a fractured skull. A few days later, Noel’s first-aid post was hit by a shell. With his face unrecognisable and a serious stomach wound, he died on 4th August 1917, aged 32.
6. Elsie Maud Inglis (1864-1917)
Scottish Elsie Maud Inglis was a qualified surgeon and supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1914, after the outbreak of World War One, Elsie offered her services to the Royal Army Medical Corporation, but was told to “go home and sit still”.
But remaining committed to her cause, Elsie set up her own organisation in Edinburgh, known as the Scottish Women’s Hospital, which provided female nurses, doctors, cooks, and ambulance drivers to places in need. By the end of World War One, the Scottish Women’s Hospital had sent 14 medical units to serve in various countries including France, Malta, Russia, and Serbia.
Elsie became the first woman to be awarded the Order of the White Eagle; the highest honour given by Serbia. She and her team were evacuated following the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Elsie died from cancer just one day after returning to England.
7. Lance Corporal William Coltman (1891-1974)
On 3rd October 1918, Lance Corporal William Coltman of the North Staffordshire Regiment earned a Victoria Cross for his “bravery, initiative, and devotion to duty”.
When William heard that wounded men had been left behind during an army retreat, he went back alone into enemy fire on three separate occasions to carry casualties back to safety. William then tended to the wounded men he’d saved unceasingly for 48 hours.
The brave soldier was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal twice for his service.
8. Mary O’Connell Bianconi (1840-1908)
Mary O’Connell Biaconi, known as Molly, travelled to France in August 1917 as a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, to work as a driver for the ambulance service.
After an air raid in July 1918, Molly and six other drivers drove their ambulances to pick up the wounded. It was reported that Molly worked for hours under fire in a brave attempt to save the lives of as many people who were stuck under rubble as possible.
She was awarded the Military Medal for her bravery and commitment to saving others.
9. Lieutenant Colonel William Barker (1894-1930)
On 27th October 1918, Canadian fighter ace (any fighter pilot credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft) took on a sea of German biplanes in what many believe was the most one-sided dogfight of the First World War.
Barker was smothered by bullets but remained conscious and managed to hit four aircraft, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross. In addition to his VC, Barker received various other awards, including the Distinguished Service Order and Bar.
He became the most decorated Canadian of the First World War and was granted a state funeral in Canada after his death in 1930.
Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday are important opportunities to recognise the brave service of those who risked their lives to protect our freedoms. Every year, various services and held silences take place across the UK on and around 11th November.
If you’d like to learn more about World War I, you might be interested in tuning into our upcoming talk over on Rest Less Events: The Burial of the Unknown Warrior.
The Unknown Warrior was brought from the battlefields of France to be re-buried in Westminster Abbey with all the circumstances of a State funeral. Tune in to learn more about the story of the Unknown Warrior and how his re-burial recaptured the imagination of the British public.
Or, for more history-related content, head over to the art and culture section of our website.