An Irishman’s Diary on January 1915

A time of innovation and cataclysm

 A Zeppelin of the kind used by the German airforce for reconnaissance and bombing missions in the first World War

A Zeppelin of the kind used by the German airforce for reconnaissance and bombing missions in the first World War

 

Looking back at some of the “firsts” of the first month of the year 1915, it is no surprise to find many of them linked to war; of the five considered here, three of them had to do with the cataclysm then unfolding in Europe.

On January 1st, 1915, DW Griffith showed a sneak preview of the film The Clansman, which subsequently became The Birth of a Nation (released on February 8th), the first 12-reel film in the US and one of the most profitable films of all time.

It proved hugely popular and ushered in an era where feature-length films came to dominate.

It made pioneering use of advanced camera and narrative techniques and has since been widely praised for its innovation. But it has also been condemned as racist because it portrays positively slavery and the Ku Klux Klan.

The other first of January 1915 under consideration that was unrelated to war was the inauguration of the first US transcontinental telephone service on January 25th. That first coast-to-coast, long-distance telephone call was made possible by a newly invented vacuum tube amplifier, ceremonially inaugurated by Alexander Graham Bell in New York and his former assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco, the two men between whom the first intelligible telephone call was made in March 1876.

What revolutions both of these “peaceful” firsts gave birth to. Now to proceed to the firsts relating to the Great War.

On January 13th, 1915, Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty (the forerunner of the secretary of state for defence), first presented his plan for an assault on Germany’s ally, the Ottoman Empire, through the Dardanelles strait as a way of assisting Britain’s and France’s ally, Russia. The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster for the western powers and cost 55,000-60,000 British (including Irish), French, Australian and New Zealand soldiers their lives, with a similar if not greater loss on the Turkish side.

Zeppelin attack

Two Zeppelins targeted Humberside but were diverted by strong winds and dropped their bombs on the Norfolk coastal towns of Great Yarmouth, Sheringham and King’s Lynn, killing four people and injuring 16.

The recruitment drive in Britain took advantage of the new threat, with a poster soon afterwards featuring a picture of a bright Zeppelin over a dark town and the words: “It is far better to face the bullets than to be killed at home by a bomb. Join the army at once and help to stop an air raid.”

The last day of January 1915 witnessed the first instance of the large-scale use of gas as a weapon in the war, when the Germans fired 18,000 artillery shells containing liquid xylyl bromide tear gas on Russian positions near the Rawka river, west of Warsaw, during the Battle of Bolimov. Worse was to follow in April when the lethal gas chlorine was used by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres.

Some lines of Wilfred Owen’s powerful poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, vividly describe the slow death of a soldier from gas poisoning. The soldier is put lying in a wagon and the men walking behind hear, “at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues”.

With the terrible war dragging on in Europe, predictions of the collapse of civilisation were frequent as 1915 developed. In response, Thomas Hardy wrote the poem, In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’, a short piece of three four-line stanzas presenting pictures from country life conveying its simplicity and beauty.

“Only a man harrowing clods / In a slow silent walk/ With an old horse that stumbles and nods / Half asleep as they stalk.

“Only thin smoke without flame / From the heaps of couch-grass; / Yet this will go onward the same / Though Dynasties pass.

“Yonder a maid and her wight / Come whispering by: / War’s annals will cloud into night / Ere their story die.”

The contrast between the peace and simplicity of these rural scenes and the awful destruction of war could not be more pronounced and the poem affirms Hardy’s conviction that the simple activities he describes would endure long after the war is forgotten. In fact, the scene that he presented in the first stanza was based on something he recalled seeing during the Crimean War of some 60 years before.