‘The dread signal of Armageddon’

  • The First World War in Europe was marked by murderous trench warfare along the Western Front in France which extended from the Swiss border north to the English Channel. Here, men are shown “going over the top” or exiting a trenchline and entering the killing zone of “No Man’s Land” to engage the enemy

    The First World War in Europe was marked by murderous trench warfare along the Western Front in France which extended from the Swiss border north to the English Channel. Here, men are shown “going over the top” or exiting a trenchline and entering the killing zone of “No Man’s Land” to engage the enemy

In both his contemporaneous public statements and private writings British statesman Winston Churchill took to describing the First World War in Biblical terms.

Churchill routinely invoked Armageddon when referring to the 1914-1918 conflict which left 16 million dead, four empires torn asunder and two others mortally wounded. This apocalyptic invocation was not an affectation, an example of his love for stirring, sometimes extravagant turns of phrase; rather it was an entirely accurate piece of conversational shorthand to describe the catastrophic end of the world which had existed before August, 1914, an ordered world of comfort, stability and peace consumed in an inferno of fire, steel and blood.

The global conflagration of the First World War was sparked by the doubt, fear, jealousy, ambitions, savagery and hate which had, of course, existed alongside the Edwardian Age’s prosperity and serene complacency. But these portents of imminent disaster had been obscured in the sunset glare of false security, false illusions and false hopes.

What Churchill called “the ungovernable passions of nations” were finally unleashed between August 1 and 4, 1914. The network of security arrangements between Britain, France and Russia on the one hand and Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire on the other were activated as a result of what former German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had correctly predicted would be some “foolish thing in the Balkans” — the assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince by a Serbian nationalist. The Great Powers declared war against one another, the machinery of militarism ground into high gear and the entire world mobilised.

“The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought,” said Churchill “... Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran.

“When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilised, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and (only because) they were of doubtful utility.”

The carnage was on a scale unprecedented in all of previous human history and even today, despite the passage of a century punctuated by other large-scale wars, atrocities and man-made cataclysms, the magnitude of the slaughter remains almost unimaginable.

On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, for instance, British casualties alone numbered 60,000 — the approximate population of modern day Bermuda. The losses were astronomically disproportionate to the “meagre gains” made in terms of territory on July 1, 1916. And the battle was to drag on for another four months. By the time the Somme Offensive eventually petered out in the mud and blood and gore of north-eastern France that November, more than a million Allied and German troops had been killed or wounded. At the end of the battle, British and French forces had penetrated a total of just six miles into German-occupied territory.

The Somme became symbolic of the futility and butchery of the war. This was a conflict in which it was said the armies were “lions led by donkeys” — incompetent and intransigent generals versed in 19th century strategy and tactics fighting a war with modern firepower and the efficient transportation systems and near-limitless manufacturing capacity of 20th century industrialised nations.

Tiny Bermuda was drawn into this vast conflict at the outset. A major British military outpost, a state of martial law was declared on the Island on August 15, 1914. The Royal Naval Dockyard quickly became a staging point for the formation of trans-Atlantic convoys composed of hundreds of ships. British and Canadian forces along with local territorial units garrisoned the Island against potential enemy attacks. And hundreds of Bermudians from in the Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps, the Island’s segregated part-time military units, volunteered to serve the common cause by fighting overseas.

Boasting a population of just 19,000 in 1914, the 500 young Bermudians who left the Island to bear arms in First World War represented the flower of their generation. Eighty never came home and are buried in foreign fields. Most of the Bermudians saw action on the deadlocked Western Front, a 450-mile wasteland of trenches and barbed wire which extended across France from the Swiss frontier to the English Channel like a livid wound.

In May, 1915, 88 men from the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps left for England under the command of Captain Richard J Tucker. The troops were attached to the 1st battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment. They served on the Western Front throughout 1915 and the first half of 1916. In September, 1916 the unit took part in an attack on Gueudecourt as part of the ongoing Somme Offensive. The assault was largely unsuccessful and fully half of the Bermudian troops were wounded or killed.

As a result of this high casualty rate, the second contingent of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corp, which arrived in France in October, 1916, was merged into the first. The troops were trained as Lewis gunners and served through to the end of the war. They fought at the murderous stalemate of Passchendaele and in the final offensives of 1918.

A Bermuda Militia Artillery unit made up of four officers and 206 rank and file arrived in France in June, 1916. Recruited from the black community, the BMA troops supplied ammunition to artillery batteries in the field. Soldiers from this unit were involved in many of the major battles of the war from the time of their arrival, including the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Messines Ridge and Passchendaele.

In December 1917 Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the commander of British forces in France, wrote to the Colonial Office commending the service of the Bermudan troops. Haig’s report was published in The Royal Gazette on January 19, 1918. He wrote of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps that: “Physically and intellectually they are as fine men as any to be found in their Brigade and their conduct has always been exemplary. It is hoped that many more soldiers of this stamp can be sent from the Island of Bermuda.”

He went on to describe the men of the Bermuda Militia Artillery as “strikingly good”.

“They were employed on heavy ammunition dumps, and great satisfaction was expressed with their work,” said Haig. “Though called upon to perform labour of the most arduous and exacting nature at all times of the day and night, they were not only willing and efficient but also conspicuous for their cheeriness under all conditions.

“On more than one occasion the dumps at which they were employed were ignited by hostile shellfire and much of their work was done under shellfire. Their behaviour on all these occasions was excellent, and commanded the admiration of those with whom they were serving.”

Allan Livingstone Cooper had enlisted in the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps as a private soldier in 1914 and was one of 16 men promoted to officer rank during the course of the war. He recorded the reaction of troops on the Western Front when the Armistice between the Allies and Germany came into effect at “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” in 1918 in accordance with an agreement signed by representatives of Germany and the Allied powers that morning.

“There was a sort of tension in all ranks as rumours of an early peace were in the air: Bermuda didn’t feel too far away at this point,” Mr Cooper wrote in his journal.

“Finally the rumours were a concrete fact — an Armistice was to be signed at 11am. The tension was eased and we paraded as usual as if nothing had happened.

“Whereas the world was celebrating the joyous event, we were taking it in our stride. Inwardly we felt a great calm that the bloody thing was over.”

When the punitive Treaty of Versailles formally ended the war a year later, France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch judged it “not so much a peace as a 20-year armistice”. History proved him to be exactly right. Economic, political and cultural chaos ensued. By ensuring Germany’s financial ruination, the onerous post-war settlement had laid the foundations for the subsequent rise of Nazism and the horrors which ensued. Just as importantly, the war had also kicked out the final decaying struts bracing the ancient Romanov regime, allowing for the Bolshevik seizure of power during the 1917 Russian Revolution and the emergence of blood-soaked Communist totalitarianism.

The 1939-1945 Second World War and the 1946-1991 Cold War were direct and inevitable consequences to the supposed “war to end all wars”.

When what Churchill called the “dread signal of Armageddon” was sounded in August, 1914 no one could have possibly anticipated its echoes would continue to be heard for decades to come. But the reality is the events of that long-ago summer continue to shape our world and Bermuda’s place in it even up to the present day.

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Published Aug 7, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 7, 2014 at 8:31 am)

‘The dread signal of Armageddon’

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