Full Program Description
Marching to glory, soldiers face death on an industrial scale in a ghastly global war
Original broadcast: Sunday, April 19 at 10pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)
In 1914, a whole generation is drawn into the world's first global conflict. During its four years, the Great War would call upon seventy million men from twenty countries to do their duty. Nine million would die.
In Killing Fields, soldiers from all sides remember the trenches and the tactics, the food, the fleas, the casualties -- the terrible nature and scale of the slaughter that shattered the old world order.
Killing Fields opens with scenes of the enthusiasm that greeted the outbreak of war in the capital cities of Europe. Soldiers marched off expecting excitement, adventure, and glory. Each nation had alliances to honor -- and old scores to settle. Berlin's Margarethe Stahl remembers that "everyone was wildly enthusiastic. They were all waving flags. People threw flowers at the soldiers. . . . Everyone was singing." Norman Tennant of London also remembers: "The atmosphere, it was certainly electric. Almost unbelievable. We were excited about it and all ready to join in, because everything had been too peaceful almost until that time."
But this would be no ordinary war. The massed armies faced a new generation of weapons, from barbed wire to rapid fire artillery to machine guns that spat out 600 rounds a minute -- all changed the very nature of war. But despite modern weaponry, soldiers were still being trained the old-fashioned way. Britain's Walter Hare, ninety-eight at the time of filming, joined the army in 1916, but even two years into the war, training was woefully inadequate: "I learned how to salute officers, which seemed to be the main thing in the army. I learned to slope arms and present arms, which you can't do in a muddy trench. I fired five rounds before I went out to France. I never saw a grenade. I never saw a machine gun."
Things were not much better on the other side of the battlefield. Soon, both sides became bogged down in an impenetrable line of trenches that stretched from the Swiss border to the English Channel. German soldier Carl von Clemm eventually found himself scavenging for horsemeat: "It looked funny when there was a dead horse -- we all passed by and ten minutes afterwards there was nothing but bones, because everybody put a piece of meat in his pocket to cook in the evening."
Ernest Weckerling volunteered on August 14, 1914 and was part of the German forces that, at terrible cost, sought to "bleed the French army white" at Verdun in 1916. One French unit was told: "You have a mission of sacrifice. . . . On the day the Germans choose, they will slaughter you to the last man, and it is your duty to die."
The fighting was so fierce that there was no opportunity to collect or bury the dead. Marcel Batreau vividly remembers the horrors: "The rats would start eating their faces. First they would gnaw at their lips and their noses, and get into their coats and start eating the rest."
At Verdun, the Somme, and in Flanders, the combination of slaughter, mud, and human despair became the primary experience of a whole generation. For three months following the Battle of the Somme, the commanders continued to order new attacks, long after it was clear that a breakthrough was impossible. For Walter Hare, "the trouble was that the people who gave these orders . . . were in a chateau ten miles behind the line -- they had never been to the trenches; they didn't know what the conditions were like."
The true horror of the war was the number and nature of the casualties. Ted Smout was an Australian who volunteered as a stretcher bearer: "High explosives, when they detonated, they'd explode and then the pieces of metal, perhaps eight or ten inches long, jagged, they would have no trouble at all in cutting a man's head off."
In the spring of 1917, after huge losses in another failed offensive, morale snapped, and men in half the divisions of the French army mutinied. For weeks the army was in ferment. Fifty-five mutineers were shot.
Gradually, the French were reinforced by big guns and the Germans suffered in their turn. Weckerling remembers being on death duty: "I had to remove everything from the dead bodies. . . . I felt like a butcher sometimes as I rummaged around in all that blood."
On the eastern front, Russian troops had also lost faith in their leadership. The Tsar's poorly trained and equipped peasant armies suffered terrible losses. More than two million Russians lay dead -- and there was news of unrest at home. With the overthrow of the Tsar in March 1917, the Imperial Army disintegrated -- and the United States could no longer remain neutral. Four million Americans were rapidly drafted to "fight for democracy" -- Albert Powis among them: "I liked America. I guess I was patriotic, 'cause every time I heard the band play a good marching song, I'd have cold chills run up and down my back."
African Americans comprised nearly eight percent of the American forces. They served in separate units, but were told -- like all recruits -- that their mission was to defend democracy. Tela Burt, a soldier with the United States infantry remembers: "I'd never heard of democracy before. I never knew what the hell I was fighting for. All I knew was I liked the uniform and I wanted to be in the army."
It would be the United States armed forces that would tip the scales and bring victory to the Allies in October 1918. In the wake of the war, four great empires lay in ruin, the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, and, everywhere, people's disillusionment with their leaders intensified. Though the Germans were humiliated, no one side gained the glory or the clear victory they'd been led to expect at the start. And the survivors were determined not to be led this way again.
Killing Fields is produced and directed by Bill Treharne Jones; the narrator is Alfre Woodard. People's Century is a co-production of WGBH and the BBC -- filmed around the world and shaped in Boston and London. Executive producer for WGBH is Zvi Dor-Ner; senior producer is David Espar. Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC. National corporate sponsorship for the series is provided by Conseco, Inc. Major funding is provided by public television viewers and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation and The Lowell Institute.
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