October 22, 1914

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

The day’s headlines from The Daily Capital Journal:


Allies Drive Wedge for Two Miles ThroughLines Near Lille
Near Warneton Desperate Fighting Has Occurred and Losses Are Enormous

Belgian Army Checks German Attack and So Saves Dunkirk


An op-ed piece, published by the Oregon Statesman by W. H. Alburn suggests “War Is More Merciful” today:

It sounds like a grim jest to say that war is safer than ever before, with every newspaper telling its story of wholesale death and mutilation. And yet it is safer.

There is little mercy, to be sure, in the artillery that blows men to shreds and the machine guns that can mow down battalions with cold lead poured like water from a fire hose. Weapons of offense have become deadly beyond all example. Yet even in this there is an element of safety that discounts their fatal effectiveness.

Because guns have so great a range, opposing lines fight at greater distances. Because cannon and machine guns are so deadly, soldiers shelter themselves in trenches.

In olden days, when armies fought with bows and arrows at fifty paces or breast to breast with sword, battle axe and spear, 30 per cent of those engaged might be killed or wounded. Such slaughter is unheard of in our modern long range duels.

The writer describes the declining mortality from the Napoleonic wars through the Civil War to the Spanish-American and Boer Wars. He then continues:

It takes more and more ammunition to kill a combatant, as the weapons gain in theoretical effectiveness. In the Balkan war a Bulgarian surgeon estimated that it required 110 rifle balls and 90 shells and shrapnel to account for each dead Turk. Somebody has figured that possibly one rifle bullet in 2500 fits its mark.

Yet the casualties already must number several hundred thousand. What of them?

First, only a small proportion of these have been killed on the battlefield, and they have died for the most part with little suffering, owing to the merciful anesthesia of would severe enough to cause quick death.

He concludes with the following comforting observation:

War, then, today is not “deadly” in comparison with past wars. Any particular soldier is more likely than ever before to come out unscathed. The horror of it consists in the vast total of deaths and wounds made possible by the enormous numbers engaged, and in the interference with the means whereby civilians live, bringing poverty and wretchedness into the homes of hundreds of millions unaffected by personal bereavement.

The poet, Owen Sheers in his poem, “Mametz Wood” refutes the conceit that there was anything merciful about this war:

For years afterwards the farmers found them –
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back into itself.

A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird’s egg of a skull,

all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.

Siegfried Sasson’s poem, “How to Die” and Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for a Doomed Youth” even more eloquently rebuts the writer:

“How to Die”

Dark clouds are smouldering into red
While down the craters morning burns.
The dying soldier shifts his head
To watch the glory that returns;
He lifts his fingers toward the skies
Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
And on his lips a whispered name.

You’d think, to hear some people talk,
That lads go West with sobs and curses,
And sullen faces white as chalk,
Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses.
But they’ve been taught the way to do it
Like Christian soldiers; not with haste
And shuddering groans; but passing through it
With due regard for decent taste.

“Anthem for a Doomed Youth”

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
–Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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