Unleashing 52 months of carnage

Paul Sparkes
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Published on August 03, 2014

Fighting during the First World War was not always from a distance — with an unseen enemy. This drawing shows what had been described as “one of the fiercest hand-to-hand encounters of the war.” It occurred in one of France’s most famous peaceful locations — near the Ermenonville Gardens — renowned since the late 18th century. The fight between The Highlanders and the Germans commenced in the forest between Compiegne and Chantilly.The Highlanders drove some of the enemy straight into the large fishponds there. It was reported that most of the Germans in the water were either shot, bayoneted or drowned.

Published on August 03, 2014

“The first French traitor of the war.” This soldier was said to have signalled the Germans the position of the French batteries near Rheims. He had been offered 100 francs. He was caught in the act and following summary execution, his body was left by the roadside to demonstrate how treachery was punished.

When European nations confronted each other a century ago, the repercussions were felt from outport to outback

He who has the heart to walk about in this ghastly place can read the last sad moments of almost every corpse.

Here one sees a blue-coated Austrian with leg shattered by a jagged bit of a shell.

The trouser perhaps has been ripped open and clumsy attempts been made to dress the wound, while a great splotch of red shows where the fading strength was exhausted before the flow of life’s stream could be checked.

Here again is a body with a ghastly rip in the chest, made perhaps by bayonet or shell fragment.

Frantic hands now stiffened in death are seen trying to hold together great wounds from which life must have flowed in a few great spurts of blood.

And here it is no fiction about the ground being soaked with gore.

One can see it — coagulated like bits of raw liver while great chunks of sand and earth are in lumps, held together by this human glue.



The Great War was a manmade plague that advanced upon civilization a century ago. It was so much bigger than anything seen before that it swept away the niceties of reporting as it riveted observers.

The paragraphs at the start of this column were typical of the kind of writing that began to flow out of Europe from the war’s earliest days. Each week, each day, each hour brought something new and horrendous to report as Europe began to implode in late summer 1914.

Who would have suspected even a brief month before that the major powers would that summer be calling upon their empires for help? Young men would be falling into the maw from across the globe … from Tbilisi to Toronto … from Bonavista to Braidwood.

 Apart from informing the reading public, the hemorrhage of printed material had mixed purposes: a tool to demonize the enemy and thus inspire greater resistance; an outcry from creative talents driven to explain what was happening and it well might have been unabashed sensationalism for a ready market.


Rushing into print

The war was thundering along not quite a year when Toronto publisher J.L. Nichols Co. issued  “Europe’s Greatest World-War: Graphic Scenes of Titanic Battles of Land, Sea and Air.”

The book’s editor was Thomas Herbert Russell (1862-1947), who had a full career producing all sorts of dramatic tragedy-oriented material on wars and catastrophes.

That aside, this particular book offered an incredible mix of events and escapades from the first year of hostilities. The book tells what the individual soldier, sailor or airman might well have encountered — it does not describe those famous “long periods of boredom,” but rather those equally famous  “moments of sheer terror.” If it helped readers of the day empathize with the men “over there,” then you may agree that it served another valuable purpose.


Eyewitness account from Antwerp

“Shells were bursting at the rate of five a minute. With great difficulty, and not without risk I got as far as Rue Lamoiere. There I met a terror-stricken Belgian woman, the only other person in the streets besides myself. In hysterical gasps she told me that the Bank Nationale and Palais de Justice had been struck and were in flames and that her husband had been killed just five minutes before I came upon the scene.

His mangled remains were lying not one hundred yards away from where we were standing.”

— October 1914


It is good to see in the book I am referencing here that, as it was published in Canada, it made certain that Newfoundland’s part was not overlooked. Our greatest sacrifice was to come in July 1916, more than a year after the book was published. This is from the book’s last page:


Newfoundlanders in the war

“On March 30 Governor Davidson of Newfoundland was officially notified of the safe arrival at Liverpool on that day of the Cunard liner Orduna with 250 soldiers and seventy-five naval reservists of the Newfoundland Contingent. They left St. John’s on March 20th on board the Red Cross liner Stephano for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they were transferred to the Orduna.

The contingent was the third sent from the Colony since the beginning of hostilities. Up to that time Newfoundland had furnished 1,000 soldiers and an equal number of sailors for overseas service.”

(As a point of interest,  the population of the colony at the time was just over 242,000.)



It is difficult to match the samples of sensationalist reporting given here with the tone of the telegrams exchanged between the crowned heads of Russia and Germany even at the point when all of Europe was on the downhill slide. Here is a small part of that exchange:


On July 31st., the Russian Emperor sent

the following telegram to the German Emperor:

“I thank thee from my heart for thy mediation which leaves a gleam of hope that even now all may end peacefully:...

- Thy devoted Nicholas


The Kaiser’s reply:


The friendship for thee and thy empire bequeathed to me by my grandfather on his deathbed has always been sacred to me and I have remained true to Russia … the peace of Europe can yet be conserved by thee if Russia decides to discontinue her military measures which threaten Germany and Austria-Hungary.

- William


Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1.

The last life experience for Newfoundland men killed in the Beaumont Hamel debacle would have been to pass  through a scene straight from hell itself.

They may well have run past a comrade who hadn’t made it, who was perhaps tangled in barbed wire. No doubt human nature would have told them as they ran forward they’d be the exception … they’d reach that parapet. Then would have occurred that snap when consciousness ceased.

This is what we try not to imagine when we discipline ourselves to remember the fallen — to remember those who gave their lives so that Germany might not prevail.


Eyewitness account  at a 1914 battle site

Other bodies lie in absolute peace and serenity. Struck dead with a rifle ball through the heart or some other instantly vital spot. These lie like men asleep, and on their faces is the peace of absolute rest and relaxation, but of these alas! there are few compared to the ones upon whose pallid, blood-stained faces one reads the last frantic agony of death. This is what the great and lofty histories seem to forget.


Novelist describes the Kaiser

There were, of course, some firmly established voices explaining the war and describing its chief players. The renowned novelist H.G. Wells (“The Time Machine,” “The War of The Worlds”) published “The Outline of History” in 1920.

He gives us a memorable portrait of the German Kaiser, one of the war’s chief instigators. In part, Wells wrote:


William II was the grandson of Queen Victoria on his mother’s side … his head was full of the frothy stuff of the new imperialism. He signalized his accession by an address to his army and navy. A high note of contempt for democracy was sounded: “the soldier and the army, not parliamentary majorities, have welded together the German Empire. My trust is placed in the army.” So the patient work of the German schoolmasters was disowned and the Hohenzollern declared himself triumphant.

The whole of Europe was soon familiar with the figure of the new monarch, invariably in military uniform of the most glittering sort, staring valiantly, fiercely moustached, and with a withered left arm ingeniously minimized. It was clear he conceived himself destined for great things.


A tangled web of interests

The causes of the Great War were only to be fully understood as time moved on and archives were allowed to open to researchers.

In late July 1914, Austria-Hungary showed Serbia that it was more than serious when it had sent an ultimatum outlining exactly how it wanted the investigation to proceed into the deaths (on Serbian soil) of the heir to its throne and his wife. In the absence of what it deemed a suitable response from Serbia, Austria-Hungary attacked. Days earlier as Russia monitored that confrontation (it felt duty-bound to support Serbia) it began to mobilize its forces.

This made Germany very uncomfortable. It supported Austria-Hungary. It too began to mobilize. Germany knew it may have to fight on two fronts, east, with Russia and west with France which had a memorandum of understanding with Russia.

If Germany rolled over neutral Belgium to get at France, Britain felt it would have to defend Belgium. In addition to that, Britain was a signatory to that understanding between France and Russia.  

A web woven by diplomacy.



Organizations: J.L. Nichols Co., Bank Nationale, Red Cross German Empire

Geographic location: Europe, Russia, Germany Toronto Newfoundland Tbilisi Bonavista Antwerp Canada Liverpool Serbia Nova Scotia France Belgium Britain Austria Hungary

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