Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » An LDS Woman at the Dawn of War: 1914

An LDS Woman at the Dawn of War: 1914

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 06, 2010

Clarissa Alice Beesley (1878-1974) and Mary Elizabeth Connelly (1876-1937) served together on the General Board of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association. Mary was on a tour of Europe when hostilities broke out in 1914, and wrote this letter to Clarissa after she had safely reached England.

London, Eng. Aug. 14, 1914.

My Dear Sister Beesley:

We have just arrived weary and worn after our strenuous efforts to reach English soil, and my brain refuses to work very well. We are so thankful to be here at “Deseret” [a pet name for the London mission home]. There are many elders residing in this hospitable home. Sister [Louie B.] Felt [1850-1928, general president of the Primary] is here; you can imagine how glad I was to see her. We expect to leave for Scotland next week.

I shall be very glad to get home. It seems so long since we left. We have seen many lands and peoples and have had a very profitable trip, but home always draws us, especially in time of war. We long to get where there is peace.

For years tremendous efforts have been put forth to bring about universal peace. Peace literature has been scattered broadcast. Societies have been formed all over the world to further its spread, to urge the nations to do away with their armies and navies and to settle their differences by arbitration. Millions have been spent in the erection and adornment of one of the most beautiful palaces in the world (the peace Palace at The Hague) in order to have a place for men of different nations to meet and settle by arbitration the questions which had formerly been decided by war.

When apparently so much progress had been made, the world has been thrown into consternation by a war which involves many nations and which threatens to draw in many more ere it has run its dreadful course.

In traveling through the countries that are preparing for battle and seeing the terrible conditions that already have been brought about one wonders what the days of its continuation will bring. What will become of the mothers and their children who have been able to secure only the bare necessities in times of peace?

When Germany declared war against Russia, Holland, although a neutral country, immediately rushed thousands of soldiers to protect her frontier. It was a pitiful sight to see the soldiers wending their way to stations, sadness written on every face and to see their loved ones trying to bear up and be brave as they bade them farewell. Almost instantly the money market became strained, the banks would only give paper money and many refused to take that in payment for groceries, etc. The prices of necessities doubled, trebled and quadrupled, but the government soon issued instructions that paper money was legal tender, and that stores found charging exorbitant prices would be taken n charge by government officials.

Belgium, too, made hurried preparation to defend herself from invasion, and it seems strange that this little neutral country should be the scene of the first big battle of the war.

In France, business almost instantly became paralyzed. With an abandonment characteristic of the Latin race, the French could do nothing, could think of nothing but war while mobilization was going on. Their patriotism is unbounded, men and women would do anything for their country. When the President called on the women to go to the fields and gather the crops there was an instant and willing assent.

Gay Paris became sad Paris. The gravity of the situation was written on every face. Most of the hotels and stores and all of the places of interest to tourists were closed. For some time the wild element that infests every large city almost created a reign of terror. Stores run by Germans were demolished. Strict police regulations were soon enforced, however. Street lights were ordered out at an early hour. People were instructed to keep off the streets at night and an earnest effort was made to enforce order.

Getting permission from the Commissaire de Police to either remain in Paris or to depart from it was strenuous work. One had to have passport from his own country (or a statement from his country’s representative), paper from the hotel where he resided, and thus armed he was forced to stand in line for hours to get the necessary papers from the police. Those desiring to depart had to endure another long wait before getting permission to go on a train. Travel was very slow, and one had to change trains very frequently. Many travelers had to walk miles, ride in peasants’ carts and often go long hours without food or drink. But the travelers’ troubles were as nothing compared to the sorrows of the people who were sending their sons, husbands and fathers forth to endure the hardships of war and to perhaps offer their lives in defense of their country.

In England business does not seem to be seriously interfered with. They have not so large a percentage of their men in the army (army service not being compulsory as in other European countries) and then the people are not so excitable as their French brothers. But millions are being spent for provisions and equipment for the army.

The sun has only just risen on this terrible war. What scenes will it witness ere it sets? Will there be a sudden and unlooked for close of hostilities, or will war rage until battlefields are drenched in blood, until unnumbered thousands of wives have been made widows, and children left fatherless, and the civilization of many of the great countries of the world thrown back hundreds of years? Only time can tell. The trouble came with a suddenness that was paralyzing and no one seems able to see what the end will be.

Give my love to our fellow-workers and accept much yourself.


Mary E. Connelly.



  1. An extraordinary letter! Thanks, Ardis for discovering and posting this!

    Her penultimate paragraph is particularly poignant, given that nobody in Europe–certainly nobody in the general staffs of the combatants–had any clue in mid-August 1914 (two weeks after war was declared) how long and how dreadful the war would be–and how many would be left widows and fatherless by the time it was over.

    She’s right about the British Army–conscription was not instituted until 1916–in part to make up for the horrible losses at the Battle of the Somme. But there were at the beginning of the war large numbers of volunteers–long queues formed at recruitment offices, some reportedly a mile long. This changed the nature of the British Army from a small professional force into something akin to, but still smaller than, the continental powers’ armies.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 6, 2010 @ 8:28 am

  2. I agree. This is extraordinary. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — January 6, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  3. a fascinating analysis at the start of the war. Fascinating because it seemed that it was understood by the common folk that this was not going to end quickly, whilst the leaders felt they could end it by Christmas.

    Comment by Dan — January 6, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  4. ‘Deseret’ was the address of the London District HQ. According to ‘Truth Will Prevail’ (a history of the Church in the British Isles from 1837-1987), in the dedicatory prayer of 1908 it was designated ‘a refuge in times of danger’ and apparently it sheltered over a thousand people during air raids in the First World War.

    I tried to find a photo of it in my old Millennial Stars, but no joy.

    Mark is right about the queues of volunteers in the first weeks of the war, and given that war had only been declared in Britain 10 days before the letter was written, I’m surprised at her comment. Maybe the British were ‘excitable’ in a more dignified manner than the French.Presumably she had been travelling when the crowds flocked to Buckingham Palace, as is our wont in times of crisis or celebration! Certainly many viewed the war as an adventure not to be missed and, possibly in an attempt to escape their mundane lives, volunteered in sufficient numbers to make conscription unnecessary till 1916, by which time enough of them had been slaughtered in the fields of Flanders to make this a necessary step.

    Another fascinating post Ardis, thanks.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — January 6, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  5. “What scenes will it witness ere it sets?”

    This war introduced: The machine gun. Barbed-wire entanglements. Trench warfare. Nerve gas, mustard gas, and other chemical warfare. The tank and armored car. Submarine warfare and the first modern battleships. Aerial bombardment and fighter planes.

    All of man’s ingenuity and resources poured into finding ways to kill their brother. Peace seems so much saner a solution. Imagine the world’s defense budgets spent on human progress…

    Instead, leaders planned the Battle of the Somme (Mark B. referenced above), a stalemate costing 1,500,000 lives (dead and wounded) in a single battle. For the British, with their 400,000 dead, it worked out to be one life given per quarter-inch of ground gained.

    Sister Connelly was prescient with her prediction of “unnumbered thousands of wives have been made widows.”

    Comment by Clark — January 6, 2010 @ 10:58 am

  6. Sister Connelly was prescient with her prediction of “unnumbered thousands of wives have been made widows.”

    My grandmother was one; her first husband disappeared in the mud at Passchendaele in 1917, his body was never recovered. Her second husband (my grandfather) died in 1926, having been conscripted as a 35 year old single man and worn out by his labours as a hospital stretcher bearer in France.The First World War wrecked her life not once, but twice; yet she never complained about it, just got on with things until she died aged 90.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — January 6, 2010 @ 11:26 am

  7. During World War II when a Nazi invasion of Great Britain seemed imminent, someone came up with a simple phrase to give the citizenry encouragement through their trials, “Stay calm—Carry on”. This appeared on posters throughout the United Kingdom and in many ways typifies the British response to a crisis. I have the deepest respect for the British people for all that they endured during those dark days of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. They paid an extra-ordinarily high price in both blood and treasure to keep their beloved ‘sceptered isle’ free. I am grateful for their shining example and hope that if our nation ever has to face an equal terror, we will acquit ourselves as nobly as they did.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — January 6, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

  8. Anne,

    Maybe the British were ‘excitable’ in a more dignified manner than the French.

    My impression from the First World War is that the Brits were more wanting of this war than the French. Was that the case?

    Comment by Dan — January 6, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  9. Velikiye- those ‘keep calm and carry On’ posters were printed to be posted around the country if the Nazi invasion went ahead. I think only 3 originals exist now, but copies are now sold as mugs, t shirts, posters, cushion covers- we seem to have adopted it as an unofficial slogan for current woes; I have it as my pc desktop background at work!

    I agree wholeheartedly with your kind words, and am in awe of my parents and grandparents who all were called upon to do their bit. My grandmother’s generation sent their husbands to fight in 1914-18; in the Second World War they sent their husbands and children were called up.My grandmothers are my heroes as they showed how to cope with fear, with dignity and without complaint.

    Dan: sorry, I am not sure if you mean the British people or the Government? it’s possibly significant to remember the effects of the Franco Prussian War; the French were itching for a chance to take back Alsace Lorraine, which was one of their stated aims upon entering the war.However, not being French, I’m not really qualified to comment on a comparison of both countries. in Britain, whilst the ‘plebs’ saw war as a chance to escape grim conditions,I’d suggest the Government felt it had little choice but to enter the war, given Britain was a signatory to the 1839 Treaty of London which guaranteed Belgian neutrality.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — January 6, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

  10. That’s true, I had forgotten about Alsace Lorraine.

    Comment by Dan — January 6, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

  11. J. R. R. Tolkien, while disavowing most parallels between history and his novels, did acknowledge that “the Dead Marshes” in Lord of the Rings drew upon his own WW I experience. In this case, reality was even worse than fiction ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — January 7, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

  12. Thanks Bruce for your comments about JRR Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. Anne is correct about the French attitude regarding Alsace and Lorraine. The causes of World War I are many and, as I discuss in my classes, complex. There were international tensions building for years–i.e. rival alliances, nationalism, and militarism. The impression I get is that although few “welcomed” war, in many quarters it was greeted enthusiastically. This was in part due to the fact that the tensions that had built up were coming to a head. If I recall, Britain only had six division in its army when the war began (which wasn’t very much). And yes, the size of the British army grew rapidly.

    Another aspect about World War I was this was the first war in which there were Latter-day Saints in opposing countries and possibly fighting each other. (There has been a recent suggestion that there was a handful of LDS who served in both the Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War). This did not go unnoticed by the First Presidency whose comments on the war were very carefully worded before and after America’s entry into the conflict.

    Comment by Steve C. — January 8, 2010 @ 10:27 am

  13. Whatever Tolkien had to say on the matter, his books are a serious critique of the 20th century and the gathering of the forces of evil, warfare, environmental degradation and the power of weakest to accomplish the great. If these things came exclusively from his unconscious mind they should have knocked him out more often!

    I think the true dawn of modern warfare is the Civil War which introduced the ideas for many of the military technologies that took off fifty years later. Our ability to destroy each other in wholesale fashion grew right into the 1960’s and is about as “good” as it going to get – at least until interstellar wars drive a need for some of the planet killing technologies posited in space opera going back at least to the 1930s. Today’s developments are more in the direction of retail slaughter—precision weapons.

    I suppose it doesn’t matter too much where technology goes from here. The terror of it all is all about us and keeps shaping our society. I, for one, await the Return of the King as the only ultimate hope.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — January 9, 2010 @ 8:08 am

  14. I could never work my way through LOTR (I’ve been trying since buying a brand new 4-vol. set of paperbacks for $5, so you know it’s been a while). Maybe I’ll have to try again.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 9, 2010 @ 10:52 am

  15. Return of the King–Great pun, Eric.

    I agree that the US Civil War marked the true dawn of modern warfare. Someone above mentioned that trench warfare came with World War I, and indeed the First World War is characterized by this form of fighting. However, and not to get too far off track, we have trench warfare occurring in the later part of the US Civil War–a precursor to events fifty years later.

    Comment by Steve C. — January 9, 2010 @ 11:38 am

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