ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago today, on 28 JULY 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, setting in motion the “Great War”.
This World War was the mutilation and destruction of human bodies and environment on a then-unprecedented, incomprehensible scale. In an attempt to reflect the hell that this conflict unleashed, here are some fragments of the horror, from a victim-centred perspective.
Imperial Germany (fresh from their colonial genocide of the Herero and Namaqua in Namibia) invaded neutral Belgium (fresh from their heart of darkness in the Congo) and within a couple of weeks had murdered thousands of Belgian and French civilians. At Les Rivages, Dinat, seven babies were among a group of 77 unarmed inhabitants lined up against a wall and executed.
The Catholic University library at Louvain was set alight with petrol and destroyed, thousands of priceless manuscripts lost forever; some 268 civilians in Louvain were murdered.
In Andenne, the burgomaster Dr Camus was shot and then “finished off” with an axe. He was but one of 262 unarmed civilians murdered in that town. Fifty-five civilians were killed in Nomény, 420 in Liége, 51 in Fresnois-la-Montagne, 60 in Gerbéviller, 60 in Longuyon and 61 in Haybes. At Tamines, a town where 383 civilians were murdered, an 88-year-old woman was burned alive in her home.
On the 26th August 1914 German Zeppelins attacked Antwerp, dropping hundreds of bombs on the people below, a local newspaper reports how “a married couple sitting at a window were killed, the woman having her hand cut off… one bomb made a hole 6ft deep… another bomb killed one citizen, mortally wounded two others and blew the leg off a fourth.”
These archives of pain stretch from Europe into Asia. In Turkey, the Armenian, Assyrian, and Pontic Greek peoples in the Ottoman Empire were designated enemies of the state, their assets confiscated, their lives forfeit. These populations reduced by circa 2.75 million from 1914 to the 1920s, as the Ottoman’s pursued a policy of extermination. Genocide. Meanwhile in Africa, the East African campaign led to the deaths of over 100,000 conscripted African porters and carriers. This was not a headline, and has never been a headline, “because the people who suffered most were the carriers – and after all, who cares about native carriers?”
Overall, the civilian death toll during World War One was around seven million.