In this centenary year, how will we commemorate lawyers who perished in the Great War?

I am raising again the topic of solicitors and the First World War, despite it having been covered recently by another commentator in the Law Society Gazette. I have different points to make. And in any case we are now in the year when the commemoration of that terrible event begins.

I shall start with some statistics. Nearly a quarter of all solicitors served in the First World War. Of those, 588 were killed and 669 seriously wounded (these figures together make up nearly a tenth of all practitioners at the time, which was around 15,000). The casualties were proportionately worse for articled clerks. More than half of articled clerks served, and of those 358 were killed and 458 were seriously wounded (together making up perhaps a third of all articled clerks).

I am grateful to the book Lawyers in Society: The Common Law World edited by Richard L Abel and Philip S C Lewis for these statistics. Interestingly, the authors were not interested in commemoration, but rather entry rates to the profession, and the role of the Law Society in controlling them. They report that, although pass rates increased dramatically after the first war, there was still a shortfall of 1,700 solicitors comparing the decade from 1914 onwards to the previous decade. (By the way, similar numbers of solicitors were killed and wounded in the Second World War, although that is a different matter.)

I wonder whether the Law Society is intending to commemorate these First World War solicitors in any way. I know its attention and resources are rightly bound up with challenging issues of the moment, like cuts to legal aid. But we also know that the framework in which we have the ability to complain about legal aid cuts in a democratic society is closely linked to the outcome of the two terrible wars of the twentieth century.

My co-commentator called in his piece for tales from families and firms regarding legal victims of the First World War. I second that, and so I am going to contribute my own family memories. Since they are not what you might expect, I should say that my prompt for this article was the recent spat between government and opposition about the right way to commemorate the war. Was it a patriotic victory for Britain in a war which needed to be fought to contain German imperialism? Or a disaster arising out of a series of miscalculations by several leading European nations? Or a war which arose from a competing set of agendas (for instance, Russia’s wish to profit from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire)? As with many disputes about history, we are probably really debating our present troubles through the prism of the past.

I had two relatives who served in the First World War, both brothers of my grandmother, of whom one was a lawyer. The lawyer spent the entire period in the capital in the War Ministry dealing with food logistics for prisoners of war. The non-lawyer, a twin of my grandmother, died fighting in 1915, aged 22. They were on the German side. The brother in combat died on the Eastern Front during the winter, fighting the Russians in the Carpathian mountains. The conditions were apparently as ghastly as those on the Western Front, which are well-known to British memories.

His grave is unknown because German war records were destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War. (The lawyer brother endured the next war, too. He had to flee Germany, requalifying as a lawyer first in the Netherlands in the days well before the lawyers’ EU directives permitted free movement of lawyers. So he had to go back to university. Then – when the Germans came too close – he fled to the United States, and requalified once more as a lawyer there.) How are we to remember in particular the German soldier who died? His name was Gustav Emmerich (1892-1915).

I hope that the Law Society will contribute to the period of reflection called for by the centenary of the First World War. Its former members suffered grievously in the slaughter. Its current members include the descendants of those, both from the UK and its former colonies, who fought and died for a victory which I believe all subsequent British generations have welcomed with relief and gratitude. The Law Society’s contribution could include an exhibition on the solicitors who served; a reflection on the role of the law and lawyers in war; and a debate with the bars of the other European countries whose lawyers died in the conflict, on whichever side, to see what lessons can be learned for our profession.

The Law Society’s current members also include people like me whose forebears died on the other side in the First World War. I have a question for any future debate: is it possible also to remember my young relative, without causing disrespect to the values which form the core of a democracy under the rule of law?

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs