Friday, August 1, 2014

This Week in History: The Dawn of the Great War

Posted by Diana Stanley, Museum Volunteer and Customer Service Representative

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields



So begins the solemn World War I poem “In Flanders Field” by Canadian soldier Lieutenant Colonel Dr. John McCrae. This week marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the conflict called “the War to End all Wars.”  The war began in the Balkans, when Bosnian Serb rebels assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria Hungary on July 28th, 1914. Soon troops mobilized in Russia to support Serbia and Germany gathered forces to aid Austria. France joined the fight on August 1st and after Germany invaded Belgium on August 3-4, Great Britain pitched in with the Allied powers as well.

It was a horrific war. The years of peace did not stop countries from improving their weapons. Over ten million soldiers died. Bloody stalemates in the trenches led to terrible conditions. One unknown journalist wrote, “The water in the trenches through which we waded was alive with a multitude of swimming frogs. Red slugs crawled up the side of the trenches and strange beetles with dangerous looking horns wriggled along dry ledges and invaded the dugouts, in search of the lice that infested them.” Partly due to the poor conditions, over one third of all deaths were a result of the Spanish flu, which spread quickly in the disease ridden camps.


It was a war of deadly firsts. Chemical warfare was used for the first time to such devastating effect that it was banned in the Geneva Convention following the war. The Germans also introduced flamethrowers to combat. Submarines, invented in the American Civil War, were used to sink both military and civilian ships. Over a thousand people died when the Germans sank the British passenger ship Lusitania. Aerial combat began and the term ‘dogfight’ originated. In August 1914, Germany began a war policy of Schrecklichkeit or frightfulness, in which they killed 150 civilians in Aerschot, Belgium.


Perhaps the best summary of the war comes from the Memorial of Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, who died in November 1918. “I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele).”

Learn more about the start of WWI in our Dawn of the Great War exhibit on the third floor of the Museum. For more information, please visit our website or call 316.263.1311.

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