It's the right time to remember what solicitors did in the Great War.
At some point in July 1916, a stiff-collared predecessor of mine must have notified the Gazette’s typesetter that a regular monthly feature would need considerably more space than usual in the next edition.
The Roll of Honour first appeared in December 1914, when it recorded the deaths of Lieutenants Ainslie and Pope at the first battle of Ypres. It was to run monthly until the end of the first world war, with entries trickling on until well in to the 1920s as solicitors and articled clerks succumbed to wounds.
The entries were based on 'brief particulars' which the Gazette requested from relatives and friends of those killed while serving in the armed forces.
A typical monthly roll contained half a dozen names, but in the August 1916 Gazette it occupies three and a half pages, recording 60 deaths. Many occurred on 1 July, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
I'm impatient with Blackadder-style folklore of the Great War, with pampered generals in chateaux sending troops repeatedly over the top, never learning from their mistakes. In fact, 97 British general officers were killed between 1914-18, and of all wars none was more remarkable for belligerents' willingness to try new ideas to break the stalemate: the creeping artillery barrage, poison gas, the tank, concealed assault troops, air support, fire and movement tactics, to mention only the best known.
The British army even got it right, eventually, when it broke the German line in September 1918 with tactics that would one day be known as Blitzkrieg. (Alas we promptly forgot the lesson, but that's another story.)
One piece of first world war folklore is true, however: the fate of Lord Kitchener's volunteer citizen army, first deployed in the Somme offensive. The German machine gunners – who were fighting for their lives – really did cut swathes through the best of British youth. Many solicitors, serving mainly as junior officers, fell with the 20,000 that day. It's easy to imagine the neat little envelopes with their brief particulars stacking up in some tray in Chancery Lane.
I'm bringing this up for two reasons. One is to suggest that anyone looking for an appropriate way to pass the Armistice Day silence today might call in at the Law Society library and look through those Rolls of Honour from 1914-18. Or the reading room, where you'll see the same names lining the walls.
The second reason is that, this time next year, we will of course be commemorating the centenary of the the historical event that defined and shaped the modern world. I'm looking to collect histories of the legal world's involvement. I hope the story won't just be of those who died, but of men and women and institutions changed by the cataclysm. If colleagues have any suggestions for inclusion, I hope they'll get in touch.
I'm interested in tales from families and firms – often the same thing, of course, with so many entries in the Roll of Honour recording the poignant detail 'He was articled to his father, Mr...'. - as well as any original material concerning the army legal service 1914-18.
Why bother after all this time? I find this history fascinating in itself (I should add that I do it as a hobby, not on Law Society time). But I also feel an old-fashioned debt to those who served. Not just to the lawyers turned soldiers but also to the unknown men or women who must have slaved for hours compiling those Gazette Rolls of Honour. Checking and rechecking galley proofs against the unthinkable prospect of a typographical error.
It can't have been easy. Especially as proof-reading requires dry eyes.