Manitoba History: “Bracing for Armageddon”: Manitoba Newspaper Articles, Editorials, and Poems on the Outbreak of the First World War, 1914

by David J. Gallant
Department of History, University of Calgary

Number 82, Fall 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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On 29 July, six days before Great Britain declared war on Germany for its invasion of Belgium, the Manitoba Free Press published alarming frontpage headlines of the deteriorating diplomatic situation on the Continent: “EUROPE ON VERGE OF GIGANTIC WAR” read the large headline. [1] In Brandon, the Daily Sun’s major headlines for 30 July read “All Nations Prepared for World Conflict.” [2] Farther west, on the same day, the Edmonton Daily Bulletin warned its readers of the “possibility of a vast catastrophe,” while The Calgary Daily Herald carried chilling words from London: “Should international war come, it would mean a new story in the history of civilization—a kind of death grapple in the darkness: a cosmic catastrophe.” [3] As the formidable military machines of the Triple Entente (Russia, Great Britain, and France) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) mobilized for war in late July and early August 1914, Western Canadian newspapers eagerly followed their movements, aware that they were witnessing the most momentous events in history. On 31 July, in “WHAT WAR WOULD MEAN,” the editors of Regina’s The Morning Leader estimated that 13.4 million men were preparing for general European war, “the end of which no man can foresee and the horrors of which baffle human imagination.” In such a massive modern conflict, “half the peoples of the civilized world will be involved in crushing, overwhelming disaster.” [4]

As the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia in late July and Germany invaded France and Belgium in early August, Western Canadian newspapers struggled to make sense of the horrifying events unfolding in Europe. In a predominantly Christian nation, Canadian editors, journalists, and ordinary citizens utilized their religious imagination to make sense of this gigantic, unprecedented conflict. On 5 August, the day after Great Britain declared war on Germany, bringing the British Empire and the Dominion of Canada into the war, the editors of rural Alberta’s The Strathmore and Bow Valley Standard captured the enormity of the emerging world conflict in a bold one-word headline: “ARMAGEDDON!” [5] The Sedgewick Sentinel, a fellow Alberta rural weekly, relayed news from London that “the empire is on the brink of the greatest war in the history of the world.” [6] The Empire and Western Canada were on the verge of Armageddon.

The Golden Age of Telegraphy and Newspapers

From 28 June, when the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Bosnian-Serb radicals, to 4 August, when the British Empire declared war against Germany for its violation of Belgian neutrality, Western Canadians keenly followed events in Europe through the ubiquitous newspaper, the central medium of the age. Urban or rural, Liberal or Conservative, Canadian newspapers belonged to a transatlantic telegraphic news network, the world’s original “information superhighway.” The Canadian press had a daily newspaper circulation of 1.23 million by 1900, Toronto’s six dailies had a combined circulation of 433,023 by 1914, and The Grain Growers’ Guide, the voice of the Prairie farmer, was regularly topping 35,000 readers when war broke out. [7] Financially muscular newspapers had their own correspondents to supply them with international news; yet a handful of major telegraphic news agencies—Reuters, Wolff, Havas, and the Associated Press—controlled the flow of world news from major world capitals to colonial outposts. [8] London, the world’s financial centre, also controlled many of the world’s major cable companies, and Canada, child of the British Empire, shared a common telegraphic communication network, language, culture, and political sensibility with Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Although Canadians drew much of their international news from the American-owned Associated Press (AP), [9] the dominance of London as a world news centre ensured that “papers in each of the Dominions would continue to share the same basic perspective on international events, even if editorial opinions varied.” [10] Most importantly, Canadians received instantaneous domestic and international news via a global system of overland and undersea telegraphic cables from the 1860s forward. As historian Simon Potter contends, from the mid-19th century, “Information could now travel around the Empire in hours or even minutes.” [11] For example, in late July and early August 1914, The Lethbridge Daily Herald carried international news via telegram from London, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and St. Petersburg, as well as domestic news from Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. Much smaller newspapers, such as The Claresholm Advertiser, an Alberta rural weekly, would not be denied coverage as the threat of war grew. The Advertiser secured a “Special Bulletin Service” with a bigger newspaper, in its case “courtesy of The Calgary News Telegram,” immediately posting news bulletins on its office windows. [12] Western Canada was part of a global, telegraphically-driven newspaper network, and every paper wanted to be as upto-date as possible as citizens devoured war coverage in 1914. As historian Ian Miller has argued, “Waking up with a morning paper, or relaxing after work with the news, was part of the daily routine.” [13]

Most Western Canadian newspapers reported the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, at the hands of Gavrilo Princip on 28 June in Sarajevo. The news dominated the front page of the Brandon Daily Sun, with the headline “HEIR APPARENT TO AUSTRIAN THRONE AND SPOUSE VICTIMS OF COWARDLY ASSASSINATION.” [14] However, Canadian newspapers viewed the assassination as part of an ancient quarrel between Serbia and German-dominated Austria-Hungary, or “Slavs versus Teutons.” It was not until Austria-Hungary sent a powerful and diplomatically irreconcilable ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July, seeking redress for its dead prince, which Western Canadian newspapers began to take the brewing storm in Europe seriously. From that day forward, news coverage adopted an ominous tone, with the Edmonton Daily Bulletin warning readers on its front page that a “GREAT WAR THREATENS EUROPE.” To the Bulletin, there was the possibility that “Europe will be plunged into the great international struggle which for fifty years has been her nightmare.” [15]

The timeline above is of crucial significance to an understanding of Canadian history. To date, most historians have portrayed Canadians as ill-informed and uninterested in foreign affairs in the summer of 1914, in effect the country bumpkins of the British Empire. [16] Eminent historians have argued that turmoil in Europe held little interest for Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden in late July 1914 as he vacationed in Muskoka, and that, quoting Stephen Leacock, war came to Canada as a shock, “out of a clear sky—the clear sky of vacation time, of the glory of the Canadian summer.” [17] Historians have also argued that drought on the Prairies and recession across Canada meant that “Canadians had enough concerns of their own,” so that a “country so preoccupied had little thought of the outside world.” [18] John Herd Thompson’s brilliant study of the Prairies between 1914 and 1918 has a chapter titled “1914: Innocent Enthusiasm,” arguing that war took Western Canadians by surprise, with newspapers offering nothing but “cheap sensationalism” at the outbreak of war. [19] In the traditional or orthodox historiographical paradigm, Canada is not perceived as an intricate part of a worldwide telegraphic news network.

The Myth of War Enthusiasm

Many studies of the First World War also contend that citizens of belligerent countries (and their potential allies) were infused with “war enthusiasm” as war clouds gathered in late July and early August, a “martial enthusiasm” and desire to fight in a grand, heroic adventure. Popular historian Pierre Berton, forever attuned to historical consensus in his best-selling works, writes of “wildly enthusiastic crowds” displaying “war fervour” in cities like Toronto and Montreal in August 1914. [20] Canada’s foremost official military historian, C. P. Stacey, contended that “enthusiasm for the cause—the enthusiasm of a nation which had scarcely the faintest idea of the nature of the ordeal ahead—was unbounded.” [21] Tim Cook, one of Canada’s most gifted First World War historians, deals with August 1914 in a chapter called “The Country Went Mad,” arguing that “martial enthusiasm” ruled English and French Canada alike. [22] However, a careful examination of Western Canadian newspapers shifts the pendulum away from “war enthusiasm” towards a darker, more complex understanding of events as they unfolded in late July and early August 1914. [23] Western Canadians, like their eastern counterparts, were part of a nation informed in 1914, reacting to the outbreak of war with profound maturity, courage, patriotism, and determination.

“The Angel of Death is Abroad in Europe”

“The Angel of Death is Abroad in Europe”
Source: The Grain Growers’ Guide, 12 August 1914, page 4

The Horrors of War

As Russia and Germany moved closer to entering the war in late July, Western Canadian newspapers focussed their attention on both the events themselves and the public responses to those events. From the beginning of the July Crisis, contemporaries believed that they were in the midst of something grand, unique, tragic, and potentially catastrophic. [24] On 27 July, The Lethbridge Daily Herald carried news from London of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey’s attempts to localize the Austro-Serbian crisis, cognizant that “the failure of these efforts to bring about settlement would bring about the greatest catastrophe which could befall the concert of Europe, and its consequences would be incalculable.” [25] On 29 July, the Edmonton Daily Bulletin, also carrying news from London, made it clear that there was “absolutely no enthusiasm in England for war,” that the British faced the prospect of a conflict with the “deepest gloom.” [26] The next day, a Bulletin editorial demonstrated the depth of the Great War generation’s comprehension of the catastrophe that could befall Europe: “The armies of Alexander, Caesar or Napoleon would not constitute an advance guard for the armies which any one of the five of the great nations will have in the field within a fortnight.” [27] On 31 July, a Calgary Daily Herald editorial shared the anxiety of their Edmonton counterparts: “Out in the open and at close range war is horrid—a plague far-reaching in its effects and debasing to those who participate in it.” [28] A 20th-century industrial war among the great powers was unlike any struggle in history. As Europe spiralled out of control, The Morning Leader in Regina vividly captured the anxiety of the times in an illustration, “INTO THE DEPTHS.” [29] Europe was plunging into the abyss of the “Horrors of War,” forever altering the destiny of Europe and the world.

This is not to argue that there were no reports of “enthusiasm” in Europe or Canada at the outbreak of the First World War. For example, on 30 July, after Austria had declared war on Serbia, the Edmonton Daily Bulletin reported from Vienna that “the war spirit in the Austrian capital is hourly increasing,” while in Russia a “great patriotic demonstration” was unfolding in St. Petersburg. [30] On 3 August, the Bulletin wrote of “a scene of great enthusiasm outside Buckingham Palace,” while closer to home, in Edmonton, “Never were there such wildly exciting scenes in all sections of the city.” [31] When Great Britain’s declaration of war was announced in Winnipeg on 4 August, the Manitoba Free Press reported that “scenes of the wildest enthusiasm were enacted on the main thoroughfares” as immense crowds “surged around the Free Press singing British patriotic airs.” [32] In Calgary, as thousands gathered in front of the Herald offices to catch the latest news, people “went wild with excitement” as war was announced “shortly after 7 o’clock” on the evening of 4 August. [33] In cities across Canada, newspapers commented on patriotic displays of enthusiasm at the outbreak of war. [34]

“Into the Valley of Death”

“Into the Valley of Death”
Source: Manitoba Free Press, 8 August 1914 (Special Saturday Section), page 1

However, reports of “enthusiasm” were often contextualized and downplayed by stories of more sophisticated, mature, and serious public responses. For example, on 3 August, in the same article in which the Edmonton Daily Bulletin spoke of “excited crowds on Jasper,” the story continued with a deeper, more nuanced analysis: “Citizens realised the gravity of the situation, and the awful catastrophe that a general European war would mean.” Such a conflict would “eclipse in horror anything that the world has ever known.” [35] In Calgary, as pictures of King George V, British Foreign Secretary Grey, and French President Raymond Poincaré were flashed on bulletin boards by projectors, “anxiety” and “relief” overtook the brief excitement of the declaration of war: “The tenor of the crowds was one of grim exultation not unmixed with a sense of what serious results the war into which the world is being plunged will entail.” [36] On 22 August, as thousands of Calgarians said goodbye to loved ones departing for war, The Calgary Daily Herald wrote of a “silent grief” behind the veneer of patriotic enthusiasm: “Beneath the general buoyant spirits and enthusiasm was nevertheless a good deal of deeper and more sentimental feeling, which in many instances was difficult to conceal.” [37] An examination of a single newspaper on 5 August, Regina’s The Morning Leader, reveals a multitude of intellectual and emotional responses to the outbreak of war: Shock, silence, cheering, enthusiasm, danger, patriotism, self-sacrifice, relief, and grim determination. Canadian journalist and editor J. Castell Hopkins, writing in 1919, understood the complex emotions at work in August 1914: “It is difficult to describe one man’s state of mind at a time of war-crisis; it is a thousand-fold more difficult to analyze the soul of a nation.” [38] There was no uniform reaction to the outbreak of war in Western Canada in 1914. [39] Anxious, fearful, enthusiastic, and patriotic, Western Canadians prepared for the greatest war in history. Yet what kind of war did newspapers imagine in the summer of 1914?

A World War Threatens

On 27 July, nine days before Britain declared war, the Toronto Daily Star published “Forces for European War.” It contained a military chart estimating the manpower strength at the disposal of the two power blocs to be 10.4 million for the Triple Entente (including Serbia) and 8.4 million for the Triple Alliance. [40] This chart was also published in The Lethbridge Daily Herald on 30 July, with the proviso that the inclusion of allies on either side could result in a “world war” of more than 20,000,000 men, not including “the greatest fleets ever engaged in an international struggle.” [41] The chart was utilized again, with modified figures for the British and Russians, by the Edmonton Daily Bulletin on 3 August, with headlines shouting “20,000,000 MEN MAY FIGHT 14,000,000 IN THE WORLD’S WAR.” The Bulletin estimated 9.8 million Triple Entente forces (not including Serbia) could face 8.4 million Triple Alliance forces, with the numbers growing to 20 and 14 million, respectively, if “unorganized men of military age” (neither professional soldiers nor reservists) were drawn into the conflict. [42] In the age of telegraphy and newspapers, Western Canadians were reading of the most fearsome armies ever assembled.

The war charts of 1914 were remarkably accurate. British historian Hew Strachan has calculated that approximately 2,000,000 Frenchmen (1108 battalions) faced 1,700,000 Germans (1077 battalions) on the Western Front in August 1914, with approximately 2,000,000 men per side available as reinforcements should the need arise—not far from the four million French and 4.3 million Germans imagined by the Edmonton Daily Bulletin. [43] The important point to remember here is that contemporaries believed they were engaged in the greatest struggle in human history. The Grain Growers’ Guide understood this well, observing: “Never before in the history of the world has it been possible to organize armies of such enormous size.” [44]

In addition to the ubiquitous war charts of 1914, which delineated the massive armies congregating on the Continent, Western Canadian newspapers also offered readers prognostications regarding potential casualties in a great power war, based upon analyses and comparisons to previous large-scale conflicts. As the likelihood of general European war increased in the final days of July, newspapers looked to the casualties of past wars to more fully understand the prospective world war of 1914. An excellent representation of this type of reportage can be found in the 31 July edition of the Manitoba Free Press. In “Great Wars Cost in Lives and Money,” the Free Press compared nine wars from 1793 to 1913, the most destructive being the French Revolutionary wars of 1793-1815, which resulted in the loss of nearly two million men. The very recent Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, which lasted only 302 days, resulted in 145,500 casualties, an indication of the tremendous firepower available to modern industrial armies. [45] With war charts and a feature story entitled “FOR WAR ON LAND, SEA AND IN AIR, FORTY MILLION MEN ARE AVAILABLE,” the Free Press implied that a general European war in 1914 would result in more devastating casualties than any conflict in history. [46]

“The Grim Reaper is at Work in Europe,” A caption below the image read “Already many lives have been lost in the European war; how many more will be lost before peace is restored?”

“The Grim Reaper is at Work in Europe,” A caption below the image read “Already many lives have been lost in the European war; how many more will be lost before peace is restored?”
Source: Brandon Daily Sun, 8 August 1914, page 1

In August 1914, many newspapers published the Free Press chart of 31 July in order to more fully comprehend the magnitude of the war engulfing the Continent. For purposes of comparison, Canadian journalists and editors concentrated most often on recent wars, particularly the South African War (Boer War) of 1899-1902, the RussoJapanese War of 1904-1905, and the Balkan Wars of 1912- 1913. Given Canada’s experience in the South African War a mere fifteen years earlier, when the nation had sent 7368 men overseas to fight on the British side against the Boers, suffering 270 deaths, it was not surprising that the war of 1899-1902 was often employed as a measuring rod for the potentially much greater conflict of 1914. [47] On 3 August, for instance, The Morning Leader published the 31 July Free Press war chart under the title “What Great Wars Cost In Lives and Money.” According to the Leader, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars cost $6.25 billion and lasted 8168 days, with 1.9 million dead. The smaller Boer War lasted 962 days, leaving more than 90,000 dead, at a cost of $1 billion. The Leader’s main editorial for that day, “EUROPE ABLAZE,” illustrated the understanding that a 1914 war would be bigger, deadlier, and costlier than all previous conflicts: “A war which promises to be the most momentous in the world’s history is now actually under way with preliminary engagements already recorded and mobilization of Europe’s armed millions proceeding day and night.” [48] Wars of the past, such as the Boer War involving Canada, paled in comparison to a modern conflict involving the world’s great powers.

The Coming of Armageddon

In the summer of 1914, as the greatest empires in the world prepared for the universally recognized most destructive war in human history, many Canadians utilized their Christian imagination to conjure one word to describe the carnage occurring in Europe: Armageddon. Given the unprecedented armies mobilizing for war on the Continent, it was commonplace in press and pulpit to evoke the spectre of Armageddon—the final conflict between good and evil, God and Satan, leading to the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ. [49] In a predominantly Christian society like Canada, Armageddon stood at the pinnacle of Christian eschatology, harbinger of Christ’s return and the establishment of his Kingdom on Earth. [50]

As British cultural historian Jay Winter has demonstrated, in literature, plays, and artistic representations the Great War generation fell back upon traditional modes of understanding in order to make sense of the chaos and uncertainty of war. In war literature, for instance, Winter’s investigation of the work produced by both soldiers and non-combatants illustrates how “Fiction, memoirs, short stories, and plays reveal a wealth of evidence as to the war’s mobilization of motifs and images derived from the classical, romantic, and religious traditions of European literature.” The Bible and the Apocalypse figured prominently in the Great War generation’s attempt to comprehend a modern industrial world war: “One of the most salient instances of the backward-looking character of this body of writing is its use of apocalyptic images.” In essence, the “varied and rich appeal to a traditional eschatology, to a sense of the world coming to an end,” establishes how 1914 unleashed “an avalanche of the ‘unmodern.’” Writers and artists hearkened backwards, to the past, in order to understand the chaos of 1914: “The Great War was, in cultural terms, the last nineteenth-century war, in that it provoked an outpouring of literature touching on an ancient set of beliefs about revelation, divine justice, and the nature of catastrophe.” [51] In major front-page headlines and articles, through editorials and illustrations, Western Canadian editors, journalists, and artists used the foundations of western civilization—the Bible and Greek mythology, as well as European history, culture, and art—to make sense of the unparalleled events of July and August 1914.

On 5 August, The Calgary Daily Herald’s front page carried telegraphic news from London of cheering crowds at the outbreak of war: “Crowds gathered at the government office through the day and cheered the ministers whenever they appeared, and pressed about their motor cars.” Given the enormity of the war in which the Empire was now involved, however, enthusiasm was muted: “The railway depots were filled with army reservists and territorials in khaki, but there were no flags flying on the buildings, and the great masses of people went about their ordinary occupations with serious faces. The first effects of the war are found in the increased prices of the necessities of life, but the people expect this and are reconciled to it.” [52] On page six, the main editorial revealed the attitude of the Daily Herald to the outbreak of war in August 1914: “ARMAGEDDON HAS ARRIVED.” The editors of the Daily Herald understood the consequences of war to Canada, the Empire, and the world: “Great Britain has spoken and Armageddon is upon us… And thus has come about a conflict that, before it closes, will have transformed the face of Europe and left an indelible mark upon the whole world.” [53] On 15 August, a Daily Telegraph war correspondent in Brussels described the carnage of war using the traditional poetic imagery of Dante. In a story published by the Daily Herald and other Western Canadian newspapers entitled “Vision of Hell Which Only Dante Could Describe,” came horrific news of the plight of Belgium:

A two hours’ motor ride from Belgium’s capital takes one to a world of grim realities and sinister contrasts… Approaching the village of Dormael, unmistakeable tokens of desolation meet the view: Shattered window-panes and domestic utensils flung among the cabbages in the gardens… [a] mother leading two or three orphaned little ones from the still smoking ruins of their homes. Everywhere is the loathsome squalor of war… Many corpses have their hands raised and their elbows on a level with their shoulders. Horrible wounds were inflicted with weapons fired at a distance of a couple of inches from the mouth or breast. One could see masses of soldiers—a vision of hell which only Dante could describe… So far the maimed warriors, homeless families, destitute women and orphaned children who are receiving attention remind one of the harvest of misery yet to be garnered. [54]

Armageddon was also invoked to describe the British Expeditionary Force’s first major engagement of the Great War, the Battle of Mons. [55] To The Morning Leader, the BEF’s initial encounter on the Continent was but the first salvo in a greater struggle, the “OPENING CRASHES IN ARMAGEDDON.” [56] In the days to follow, the severe British casualties incurred at Mons were widely reported in the Western Canadian press. [57] In the opening weeks of the Great War, the Empire was perceived to be in the midst of the biblical Armageddon.

“The Modern Samson,” A caption read “Count Okuma, the Japanese premier, is reported to have declared that the present European war, if continued, would mean the destruction of western civilization.”

The Modern Samson,” A caption read “Count Okuma, the Japanese premier, is reported to have declared that the present European war, if continued, would mean the destruction of western civilization.”
Source: The Edmonton Capital, 7 August 1914, page 1

Clearly, the horrors of Armageddon touched the imagination of citizens in Calgary, Edmonton, and Regina. However, fears of civilization’s collapse were felt no less powerfully in rural Canada. On 7 August, in “CIVILIZATION?” the editor of the B.C. Liberal weekly Alberni Advocate expressed a sense of dread for humanity as war raged in Europe: “The very foundations of civilization are shaking under the rude hands of barbaric War Lords willing to drench the earth with the blood of countless thousands in order to win a little niche in the temple of Fame.” Great Britain strove valiantly for peace as the warlords of Europe threatened to destroy all they had built for generations: “It appears now in the hum of armed camps, the marching of millions, the smoke of conflict, and in the blotting out in a few days of what it has taken hundreds of years to build.” Although the editor hoped “against all conviction that something will yet happen that will show the way out without further bloodshed,” civilization’s fate hung in the balance: “The clouds are dark. They have never been darker in the memory of men now alive.” [58]

The Apocalyptic Darkness of War

The dark clouds of war are literally and figuratively evident in three Western Canadian newspaper illustrations in early August 1914. The illustrations convey themes such as the horror of war and the link between war and death. In addition, they illuminate the imaginative use of the traditional language and imagery of the Bible and European culture. Jay Winter has shown how Great War artists spoke a common language “across the yawning gap of doctrinal orthodoxy.” After 1914, “most sought in the Biblical tradition a range of symbols through which to imagine the war and the loss of life entailed in it.” The sacred returned in the Great War “as a vocabulary of mourning, and as a code through which artists expressed in enduring ways the enormity of the war and the suffering left in its wake.” [59] This traditional vocabulary of the sacred was also employed by Canadians in the summer of 1914, in visual images capturing the anxiety and fear of the times, before they sent their sons and daughters to Europe. [60]

It is in the imagery of 1914 that we find the physical tools to topple the great pillars of Canadian historiography such as “war enthusiasm,” concepts that have held ascendancy in the high schools, universities, and historical imagination of Canada for a century. On 7 August, for example, the Edmonton Capital published “The Modern Samson,” an illustration which envisaged the destruction of the century-long European and world peace. In this biblically inspired image, Samson (the word “KAISER” is written on his back) brings down the pillars sustaining the Temple of Peace, wrecking western civilization. The caption below reads “Count Okuma, the Japanese premier, is reported to have declared that the present European war, if continued, would mean the destruction of western civilization.” [61] On 8 August, a few days after the declaration of war, the Brandon Daily Sun published an image of the Grim Reaper at work in Europe. As Canadian soldiers volunteered for war at armouries across the country, families said good-bye to loved ones at home and on city and town streets, they did so with these harrowing images in mind. [62] The third image, a more literal representation of Armageddon, appeared in The Grain Growers’ Guide on 12 August. The Angel of Death, replete with Roman armour, plumed helmet, and blood-dripping sword (the traditional imagery of Mars, the Roman god of war), leaves one field of death in search of another. [63] In the summer of 1914, in countless newspaper illustrations, editorials, and articles, the Angel of Death was abroad in Europe. Such was the Western Canadian apocalyptic imagination at the outbreak of the Great War.

Conclusion: Into the Valley of Death

In July and August 1914, as the world fell precipitously into war, Western Canadian newspapers, intricately connected to the transcontinental telegraphic news network, deluged readers with headlines, articles, war charts, and illustrations describing the outbreak of the greatest war in history. A wide range of emotions, from patriotic enthusiasm to anxiety and grim determination in the face of Prussian militarism, can be found on the pages of Western Canadian newspapers at the outbreak of the Great War. More importantly, with tens of millions of men marching to the killing fields of Europe in 1914, with casualty reports from the Eastern and Western fronts reaching Canadian newspapers in multiple daily editions, it was natural for citizens infused with a Christian sensibility to imagine and invoke the spectre of Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil leading to the Apocalypse, to make sense of the unprecedented carnage taking place in Europe.

To many Western Canadians in 1914, the chaos of war brought in its train nothing but uncertainty and confusion. The ancient civilizations of Europe and North America were being led into the unknown darkness of war, the very existence of western civilization hanging in the balance. The uncertainty of war, expressed through the religious and cultural sensibilities of Canada’s western heritage, was captured in a Manitoba Free Press illustration of 8 August 1914. Mars, the god of war, was leading Christian, civilized Europe, and the youth of the British Empire such as Canada, into the valley of the shadow of death. [64] In August 1914, Canada plunged into the abyss of war, forever altering its national destiny.


1. Manitoba Free Press, 29 July 1914, p. 1 (hereafter, MFP). Note: In 1914, many large and bold headlines, particularly front-page headlines, were placed in an “all-caps” style. This paper has faithfully retained the all-caps format for large and bold headlines in 1914 newspapers, where applicable.

2. Brandon Daily Sun, 30 July 1914, p. 1 (hereafter, BDS).

3. Edmonton Daily Bulletin, 30 July 1914, p. 1 (hereafter, EDB); The Calgary Daily Herald, 30 July 1914, p. 8 (hereafter, CDH).

4. The Morning Leader (Regina), 31 July 1914, p. 4 (hereafter, RML).

5. “ARMAGEDDON,” The Strathmore and Bow Valley Standard, 5 August 1914, p. 4.

6. The Sedgewick Sentinel, 6 August 1914, p. 5.

7. Paul Rutherford, A Victorian Authority: The Daily Press in Late Nineteenth-Century Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982, p. 3-5; Ian Miller, Our Glory and Our Grief: Torontonians and the Great War, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002, p. 9; The Grain Growers’ Guide, 5 August 1914, p. 1.

8. Gordon Winder, “London’s Global Reach?: Reuters News and Network, 1865, 1881, and 1914,” Journal of World History, Volume 21, Number 2, June 2010, p. 276.

9. In 1893, the Associated Press signed a contract with Reuters giving it the exclusive right to treat Canada as a subsidiary territory under the cartel’s system of territorial exclusivity. The New York-based Associated Press received an enormous bundle of international news via telegram from Havas (Paris), Wolff (Berlin), and Reuters (London), which they then sold to Canadian newspapers. By 1909, 48 Canadian dailies paid for the AP service, receiving between 2000 and 12,000 words of U.S. and international news per day. See Gene Allen, Making National News: A History of Canadian Press, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013, pp. 18-26.

10. Simon J. Potter, News and the British World: The Emergence of an Imperial Press System, 1876-1922, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003, pp. 15, 28-29, 33-35, 212.

11. Potter, News and the British World, pp. 27-28.

12. The Claresholm Advertiser, 12 August 1914, p. 1.

13. Ian Miller, Our Glory and Our Grief, p. 9. Historian Catriona Pennell, in her recent examination of public opinion in Great Britain and Ireland from August to December 1914, has argued that newspapers, in an era before popular opinion polls, “provide an excellent foundation for establishing popular reactions to war.” More importantly, they record public behaviour in cities and towns. See Catriona Pennell, A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 6-7.

14. BDS, 29 June 1914, p. 1. For examples of coverage in other Canadian cities, see The Lethbridge Daily Herald, 29 June 1914, p. 1; The Quebec Chronicle, 29 June 1914, p. 1; The Globe [Toronto], 29 June 1914, p. 1; and The Halifax Herald, 29 June 1914, p. 1.

15. EDB, 25 July 1914, p. 1.

16. A notable exception to the trend above is Ian Miller, who has shown that “Torontonians were long accustomed by August 1914 to reading about international affairs.” As avid consumers of news, Torontonians were “remarkably familiar with events in the Balkans.” Miller, Our Glory and Our Grief, pp. 10-11. As Western Canadians were part of the same telegraphic news network, a similar argument can be made for their readership proclivities.

17. Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond, and John English, Canada 1900-1945, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, p. 119; Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2007, pp. 22-23.

18. J. L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton, Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919, Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, 1989, pp. 2-3. More recently, Desmond Morton has argued that by early August 1914 “most people had barely noticed its [the war’s] approach.” See his Fight or Pay: Soldiers’ Families in the Great War, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004, p. 1.

19. J. H. Thompson, The Harvests of War: The Prairie West, 1914-1918, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1978, pp. 12-23. In 1987, Gerald Friesen utilized Thompson’s research to reach similar conclusions: “The outbreak of war was even more of a surprise in the prairie west than it was in Surrey or Lancashire. Western Canadian newspapers had almost ignored the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo and had not perceived the implications of the diplomatic manoeuvrings that ensued.” Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 348-49.

20. Pierre Berton, Marching As to War: Canada’s Turbulent Years 1899-1953, Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2002, pp. 130-31.

21. C. P. Stacey, Canada and the Age of Conflict: A History of Canadian External Policies, Volume I: 1867-1921, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977, p. 177.

22. Cook, At the Sharp End, pp. 21-33.

23. Several European studies have challenged and seriously questioned the validity of the “war enthusiasm” argument as a means of explaining the public response to events in 1914. For Great Britain, in addition to Catriona Pennell’s A Kingdom United, see Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. For France, see P. J. Flood, France 1914-18: Public Opinion and the War Effort, London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1990; for Germany, Jeffrey Verhey, The Spirit of 1914: Militarism, Myth and Mobilization in Germany, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

24. The term “July Crisis” refers to the rapid and dramatic escalation of diplomatic tensions among the great powers of Europe leading to war in late July and early August 1914. For Canada and other constituents of the British Empire, the July Crisis comprises the period from the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia on July 23 to the August 4 declaration of war by Britain on Germany. For an excellent timeline of the July Crisis, see Geoffrey Megargee’s “Appendix A: Chronology, 1914,” in Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, eds., The Origins of World War I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 507-519.

25. LDH, 27 July 1914, p. 1.

26. EDB, 29 July 1914, p. 1.

27. EDB, 30 July 1914, p. 4.

28. CDH, 31 July 1914, p. 6.

29. “INTO THE DEPTHS,” RML, 28 July 1914, p. 1.

30. EDB, 30 July 1914, p. 1.

31. EDB, 3 August 1914, pp. 1-2.

32. MFP, 5 August 1914, p. 3.

33. CDH, 5 August 1914, pp. 7-9.

34. For example, see The Globe (Toronto), 5 August 1914, p. 6; and The Quebec Chronicle, 5 August 1914, p. 3.

35. EDB, 3 August 1914, p. 5.

36. CDH, 5 August 1914, pp. 7, 9.

37. CDH, 22 August 1914, p. 9.

38. J. Castell Hopkins, Canada at War: A Record of Heroism and Achievement 1914-1918, Toronto: The Canadian Annual Review Limited, 1919, p. 22. Hopkins’ 1919 work utilized and built upon his 1914-18 publications in the Canadian Annual Review.

39. Catriona Pennell has argued that in Britain, “shock, tension, anxiety, dread, and defiance characterized British popular responses in the days that immediately followed the declaration of war.” See Pennell’s A Kingdom United, pp. 52-56.

40. The Toronto Daily Star, 27 July 1914, p. 4 (hereafter, TDS). Italy’s status as a combatant had yet to be determined in early August 1914, but military estimates included Italian forces with those of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Italy would not fight with Germany and the Central Powers, joining the British/Allied side in 1915.

41. LDH, 30 July 1914, p. 1.

42. “20,000,000 MEN MAY FIGHT 14,000,000 IN THE WORLD’S WAR,” EDB, 3 August 1914, p. 5.

43. Hew Strachan, The First World War-Volume I: To Arms, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 207; EDB, 3 August 1914, p. 5.

44. The Grain Growers’ Guide, 5 August 1914, p. 26 (hereafter, GGG).

45. “Great Wars Cost in Lives and Money,” MFP, 31 July 1914, p. 2.

46. In “FOR WAR ON LAND, SEA AND IN AIR, FORTY MILLION MEN ARE AVAILABLE,” the Free Press argued that “Greater than all the armies ever before assembled will be those called on in case the countries which are parties to the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente are finally brought into the war between Austria and Servia.” On the same page, in “Relative Strength European Nations,” a war chart appeared listing armies of 8.4 million soldiers for the Triple Alliance and 10.2 million for the Triple Entente. MFP, 31 July 1914, p. 9.

47. Most of the 270 deaths were the result of diseases. Carman Miller, Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993, pp. xi, 429.

48. “What Great Wars Cost In Lives and Money” and “EUROPE ABLAZE,” RML, 3 August 1914, pp. 2, 4.

49. The idea of Armageddon, the site of the final battle between the forces of God and Satan, is from a vision of St. John in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian New Testament. Historian Eric Reisenauer, in his study of Britain in the Great War, has argued that Armageddon was a ubiquitous term in the war years, and that the “war was often presented as an expression of the will of God, a judgment upon the nation, a new crusade, a call for redemption of both self and nation, and even a war between Christ and the devil.” See “A World in Crisis and Transition: The Millennial and the Modern in Britain, 1914–1918,” First World War Studies 2, no. 2 (2011): pp. 218–19.

50. Of a total Canadian population of 7,206,643 in 1911, Roman Catholics comprised 39.31% of the population. The five major Protestant denominations accounted for 53.43% of the Canadian population (Presbyterians 15.48%, Methodists 14.98%, Anglicans 14.47%, Baptists 5.31%, and Lutherans 3.19%). Fifth Census of Canada 1911: Religions, Origins, Birthplace, Citizenship, Literacy and Infirmities, By Province, Districts and Sub-Districts, Volume II (Ottawa: Printed by C. H. Parmelee, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1913), pp. iv, vii. In a recent work on Canadian churches in the Great War, historian Gordon Heath argues that “Canadian churches had an influence on society unlike any other institution at the beginning of the twentieth century, and Protestant and Catholic leaders were committed to shaping national identity in the decades following Confederation.” Gordon L. Heath, ed., Canadian Churches and the First World War, Hamilton: McMaster Divinity College Press, 2014, p. 1.

51. Winter argues that Great War painting and sculpture reveal a similar reliance on older modes of representation, including biblical underpinnings: “Eschatology, the science of the last things, flourished during and after the Great War. Among its most powerful and lasting forms were painting and sculpture, produced by both soldiers and civilians. Through an examination of the work of a number of artists, we can appreciate the richness and diversity of the search for older forms and images by means of which enduring visions of the Great War were fashioned.” Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 144-45, 178-79.

52. CDH, 5 August 1914, p. 1.

53. CDH, 5 August 1914, p. 6.

54. CDH, 15 August 1914, p. 7. This telegraphic news article out of Brussels, courtesy of Dr. E. J. Dillon, “Special War Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph,” also appeared in The Edmonton Daily Bulletin, 15 August, 1914, p. 1.

55. The Battle of Mons (23 August) was one of the principal battles within the greater Battle of the Frontiers. The French simultaneously fought the Battle of Charleroi, also known as the Battle of the Sambre. British military historian John Keegan has written that the BEF suffered 1600 casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) on 23 August, with a further 8000 casualties in the “Great Retreat” in the days following Mons. John Keegan, The First World War, New York: Vintage Books, 2000, pp. 89-102.

56. “OPENING CRASHES IN ARMAGEDDON,” RML, 24 August 1914, p. 1.

57. For example, see LDH, 25 August 1914, p. 1; and RML, 26 August 1914, p. 1. On 10 September, The Camrose Canadian provided an updated casualty report from London: “The British war information bureau has issued a long statement of the operations of the British Army during the past week and in addition a list of British casualties which shows a total of more than 18,000 men up to Sept. 1.” “LATE WAR NEWS IN BRIEF,” Camrose Canadian, 10 September 1914, p. 1.

58. Alberni Advocate (British Columbia), 7 August 1914, p. 2.

59. Winter examined works of art by renowned painters such as Paul Klee, but also included analysis of the works of lesser artists. As Winter demonstrates, both “high-brow” and “low-brow” artistic or literary representations are of great value in ascertaining the spirit of an age. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, pp. 177, 226-27.

60. Canada’s First Contingent, 30,617-strong, sailed from Quebec for England aboard thirty ships in October 1914. Tim Cook, At the Sharp End, p. 54.

61. “The Modern Samson,” Edmonton Capital, 7 August 1914, p. 1. “Count Okuma” referred to Count (Marquess) Okuma Shigenobo, Prime Minister of Japan in 1898 and 1914-16.

62. “The Grim Reaper Is At Work In Europe,” BDS, 8 August 1914, p. 1.

63. “The Angel of Death Is Abroad In Europe,” GGG, 12 August 1914, p. 4.

64. “Into the Valley of Death,” MFP, 8 August 1914, Special [Saturday] Section, page 1. Above the illustration, in “A Prayer in Time of Danger of World-Wide War,” the Free Press prayed for a swift end to the conflict: “O Lord God Almighty, let Thy spirit come in all fullness in the hearts of Thy children; that wars and rumours of wars shall cease to be: since war is abhorrent to man’s highest ideals and peace in accordance with his best thought…Hear us O God Our Father, in the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.”

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 12 November 2020