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The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

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The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

‘Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.’ JRR Tolkien

When JRR Tolkien’s epic, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, appeared in three volumes in 1954-55 it sold pretty well without setting the publishing world on fire. It only became a ‘legendary’ book in the 1960s when it captured the imagination of a new generation of readers including many amongst the ‘hippy’ generation. Tolkien’s story of hobbits, elves and dwarves fighting alongside men against the evil power of Mordor was rich in imagery and seemed to be especially enjoyable when viewed through a smoky haze of some kind. Led Zeppelin, the legendary band of the late sixties and seventies, wrote many songs which were filled with imagery taken straight from the legends of ‘Middle Earth’. The incredible popularity of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of films took the legend of Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum and the ring to an enormous audience around the world. But what was ‘The Lord of the Rings’ actually about? Indeed, was it about anything at all?

Having been published in the mid-1950s, many people read Tolkien’s work as an allegory for the struggle for power in the Cold War. The ‘good’ forces of the West, seen in the feisty dwarves, the pure elves, the fragile men and above all the innocent, loyal and determined hobbits, were vulnerable band of friends, the allies, taking on the ‘dark forces’ of Communism represented by Mordor in the East. This was certainly a widespread interpretation and one passed on to me and many who read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the seventies. But the story was actually written long before the Cold War and the frightening tension between Communism and the West. Some people claimed it was based on World War II with Germany being ‘Mordor’ while others looked for a simpler tale rooted in the Norse myths that Tolkien had loved and studied since childhood. In reality, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ speaks of war, of course, and has images rich in Norse mythology but its true origins and the essence of its meaning is to be found in an earlier conflict, the Great War of 1914-18, when Captain Tolkien served with the British Army in the trenches of the Western Front.

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JRR Tolkien, in military uniform during the Great War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

JRR Tolkien was born in 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa but his family moved to England after his father died in 1896. They lived just outside Birmingham, in a village called Sarehole, near Moseley and in what was then Worcestershire but today is very much part of the city itself. It was from Sarehole that the young Tolkien would look out towards Birmingham in the distance, across to Perrot’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks, the buildings which would become the ‘Two Towers’. The domes of St. Philip’s Cathedral and the Oratory church in Birmingham may also have influenced his imagery, as did the local mill at Sarehole. ‘Ronald’ as he was known (his full name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, in case you need to know) grew up at a time of great upheaval with technological change impacting on life at almost every level in Britain. For Tolkien this drama was played out at home as the strength of the local industrial city cast a lengthening shadow over the countryside around him: crafts were changing, traditions were under threat and ‘Old England’ was dying.

Without going into too much detail, childhood was far from straight-forward for Ronald Tolkien, especially after his mother died in 1904. She had suffered from diabetes which was untreatable in those days before insulin had been discovered. It may seem surprising to people today, but Ronald and his brother were placed in the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a friend of the family. Father Morgan was a Catholic priest at a church called the Birmingham Oratory, which had been founded in the 19th Century by John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican convert to Catholicism. Tolkien’s mother had grown up as a Baptist but had become a Catholic and JRR was strongly influenced by his own Catholic faith. Tolkien was a very intelligent, bright child, who was taught a lot by his mother, and he was extraordinarily talented at languages. He mastered Latin and Greek as a boy before developing an interest in Welsh, Finnish and Old English at Oxford University. He also had a habit, going back to childhood, of inventing his own languages, something that would lead to his creation of ‘Elvish’ as used in his books.

1916 was a momentous year for Tolkien: at the age of 24, he married Edith Bratt at St. Mary’s Church, Warwick, and was also sent out to fight in the Great War. He arrived just in time to join the fighting at the Battle of the Somme, which started on 1st July of that year. He was in and out of the trenches for four months before being sent home with a common infection called ‘trench fever’, a result of the unhygienic conditions at the front line. He was kept in hospital in Birmingham for over a month, during which time he heard that most of his old friends from school had been killed in the war. These experiences influenced him deeply and were formed into a story known as ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ which later became ‘The Silmarillion’. The sense of belonging to small groups of friends seems to have been significant for Tolkien throughout his life: at school, in the army and later on in academic life he was most at ease with small groups of like-minded men. There was something life-giving and sustaining about facing the hardships and challenges of ‘mighty forces’ in the company of a faithful ‘band’ of friends, something which stands at the heart of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Tolkien suffered recurring bouts of trench fever in 1917-18 and he did not return to the army. He entered academic life, becoming professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University in 1925 where he remained until he retired in 1959. Tolkien was a normal sort of ‘prof’ really, doing nothing too remarkable apart from being part of ‘The Inklings’, a group that met in various pubs around Oxford, the best known of which is ‘The Eagle and Child’. Each week the group met for drinks, discussions and debates on their own writings, and the group famously included the other great ‘religious novelist’ of the period, the Anglican CS Lewis, author of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and ‘Surprised by Joy’ amongst others. Tolkien clearly valued the company of like-minded men who were able to reflect on life and offer good company.

In 1937, Tolkien had a story published. It was called ‘The Hobbit’, which received widespread acclaim at the time and has remained a children’s classic ever since, selling over 100 million copies. ‘The Hobbit’ was a fantasy work which introduced Bilbo Baggins, Gollum, Middle Earth and ‘The Ring’ to the world, and would provide the background for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which would take 16 more years to reach publication. The key point to know, though, is that the great themes of both books are to be found in his earlier book, ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ or ‘The Silmarillion’. In other words, the themes and imagery for ‘Lord of the Rings’ are rooted in his early experiences in life, his childhood in and around Birmingham, his Catholicism and, most importantly, his experience of fighting and the destruction of the Great War.

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Sarehole Mill, Moseley, Birmingham. (Author: Ashley Dace; Source: here)

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Trenches of the Somme, 1916. (Author: John Warwick Brooke; Source: here)

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a big book in length, of course, but also in ideas, which is why so many people read it at different levels. The basic setting is the on-going struggle for power between good and evil, such that there is almost a dualism at work between a ‘good god’ (embodied in Gandalf) and a ‘bad god’ (represented by Lord Sauron with help from another baddy in Saruman). Religious values mingle with basic human and cultural values to represent a traditional way of life that comes under threat from something more simple, direct and ultimately destructive in the forces that come out of Mordor. They are expressed in the obsessive greed, lying and violence that come from the power of the ring.

The real backdrop or context for the struggle in the story is the Great War, which is one of the reasons why the story focuses on men; very few women play a significant role in the story. The plot is rooted in the traditional values of ‘Middle England’, the world of his childhood, which Tolkien saw as coming under such threat in the war. These values were expressed in many ordinary, traditional things and rooted in the disappearing English countryside: the landscape itself, the small farmers, the village pub, the old crafts, the folk songs and the relationships between ordinary people who just wanted a simple, safe life. These values saw people take time over things that mattered, built quality goods, respected wisdom and the old ways, a world in which people had time for play and for friendship. They were people who lived by the rhythm of the seasons, people who understood the traditional arts and crafts and had manners, honesty and respect for all. This way of life, the life of the ‘Hobbits’ of ‘The Shire’, had come under the greatest threat from dark, distant forces which reached out to cast a shadow over the traditional ways. These were the violent forces of the Ringwraiths at first but the Orcs and others too, the forces that wanted to seize, exploit and reject traditional ways in favour of control, selfishness and greed. The dark forces of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ were the result of the rise of industry, capitalism, individualism, greed and violence. The Hobbits were the simple people Tolkien had grown up amongst and who saw their way of life under threat: the farmers, craftsmen, the families of ‘Middle England’ who were thrown into a nightmare not of their making. Most of all they were the ordinary young men who were forced out of ‘The Shire’ and thrown into the horror and the slaughter of the trenches, in a war which seemed to be a struggle for the survival of civilisation itself. The story almost comes to express the values of the Luddites and Captain Swing, all mixed together with a bit of William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’.

The context for the struggle faced by Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf and the others is the Great War, the First World War of 1914-1918. Young men, many of whom had never left their home villages and towns, and who knew of foreign lands only through books and newspapers, marched off with high hopes and in great excitement to face an unknown enemy from the East. Inspired by dreams of loyalty, trust and patriotism, they volunteered and celebrated the chance to do their bit ‘for King and for country’. These men, some of them as volunteers, others as conscripts, were sent to the front line to be mown down in their millions for this was a new horror, the first ‘industrial’ war. Traditional weapons and tactics came face to face with the mass-produced destruction made available through machinery, as symbolised by the creation of the Orcs. In the Great War, artillery, gas, tanks and machine guns would wipe out a generation. Industry was tearing up the countryside of Tolkien’s childhood, the landscape being destroyed to turn trees into guns and men into monsters. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is really war poetry on the grandest scale.

One particular scene might serve to illustrate this. If you watch the final film, ‘The Return of the King’, there is a point where, following an ‘Entmoot’, a slow discussion amongst the Ents, Merry and Pippin are carried by the leading Ent to the edge of the wood. There they look out towards Isengard, the fortress of Saruman, and see a devastated landscape where the trees are being torn up and thrown into a giant furnace to build an army of Orcs to destroy Middle Earth. The Ents, or trees, are representative of the countryside itself, symbols of the slow moving but wise and deep-rooted wisdom of Middle Earth, the unchanging landscape of England reaching back to the Anglo-Saxon times and the days of Beowulf, Bede and Caedmon. Nature is being fed into the fires of industry, the landscape is being lost and the old ways are on the verge of destruction at the hands of the Orcs and Ringwraiths who are led by cold, heartless leaders who look down on all that they represent. In this scene, Tolkien recreates the trenches, the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele, and shows what is at stake with the battle for the ‘Ring’, namely civilisation and the heart of humanity. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the struggle for the soul of ‘Old England’ expressed in the horrors unleashed by politicians and rulers who seek power and ‘progress’ at any cost. The alliance of dwarves, elves, men and hobbits represent a vulnerable group which can survive only by sticking together and putting differences of language, culture and religion to one side.

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A scene from ‘Gibraltar’ bunker on the Somme showing the destruction of life as well as the countryside. (Author: British War Photographer; Source: here)

Tolkien would later speak out against Communism and Nazism for the same reasons really: totalitarian regimes, imposing their wills on ordinary people and rejecting traditional, cultural and religious values in the process. He had a world-view that was firmly set against these new ideas and against industrialisation. He favoured tradition and saw a frightening tipping point in his experiences on the battlefields of the Western Front. This is the real meaning of his greatest book.

But maybe it really is just a fairy tale about some brave little hobbits, some elves, a ring and, of course, Gollum. Maybe.

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Professor Tolkien in 1967. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Books: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkien (both Harper Collins)

Films : ‘The Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by Peter Jackson (Eiv)

Books: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by CS Lewis (Harper Collins)

War Poets: Poems of the Great War (Penguin): Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Ivor Gurney and others.

Book and film: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, one of the most famous anti-war statements of all time, with the film best seen in the original from 1933.

Books on ‘The Somme’: There are so many fine works about ‘The Battle of the Somme’ that it is hard to choose one or two. Fine works include: ‘The first day on the Somme’ by Martin Middlebrook (Penguin History, 2006); ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine (Ebury Press) shares many of the stories of ordinary soldiers in the battle and Peter Barton’s ‘The Somme’ (Constable) contains a wide range of photographs and testimonies.

DVD: The original of ‘The Battle of the Somme’ which appeared in cinemas at the time is available from the Imperial War Museum here.

 

The Great War: ‘Well, this is a sort of war, isn’t it, sir?’

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, his wife, leave the Town Hall in Sarajevo – and the world is just five minutes away from the assassination which will take the world to war. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Great War, 1914-1918: ‘Well, this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?’

‘The conduct of Germany is almost unexampled in human history. The terrible responsibility which lies at her doors can be seen in the fact that not less than seven million dead lie buried in Europe, while more than twenty million others carry upon them the evidence of wounds and sufferings, because Germany saw fit to gratify her lust for tyranny by resort to war.’ Georges Clemenceau at the Versailles Conference, 1919

‘The Great War’, ‘World War I’, ‘The First World War’, ‘The War To End All Wars’. 1914 to 1918, or 1914 to 1917, or 1917 to 1918, depending on which country you were in. Whatever you want to call it and whatever you might think of it, the ‘Great War’, was very, very big and very, very important. It was a quite extraordinary event that marked a dramatic change in world history, shifted power between nations, redrew maps, changed international relations and killed more people than any previous war. There is good reason to see it as one of the most significant events of the Twentieth Century, alongside the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and, in some mistaken minds, such ‘sensational’ moments as England winning the World Cup, the arrival of ‘Rock’n’Roll’ and the invention of colour TV. Here we will just take a brief look at the origins of the Great War, a tragic tale of boredom, revenge, envy, technology and bad luck.

The Great War did not start for one simple reason, one of the facts of life in history which can upset some people. Nothing so big can ever have a single cause and the road to that war was along many routes and from many different places, factors which merged together in the glorious summer of 1914. Some of these causes were long term, a few were medium term, others were short term and they were ignited by one final trigger. It was like building a good bonfire: you need some big chunks of wood (like railway sleepers and old fashioned wardrobes) which are hard to set alight but when they do they will keep going for ages; these are the long-term factors. Next you need some medium-term issues, which are like good branches and chairs which will help set the sleepers and wardrobes on fire. After that, small twigs and kindling, maybe some rags and newspapers, which will fill in the gaps of your bonfire and catch light easily. Finally you need a light, a match which will get the whole thing going. This is the trigger, often just a tiny flame which can be transformed into a terrifying conflagration. So, what set the war off?

As so often happens in history, it would be useful at this point to have a look at some maps, to help your understanding of the situation in the world of 1914. In Europe, you should look at the way the continent was dominated by five great powers: Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Notice how few countries there are in total and the absence of many familiar modern-day countries and borders. When you consider the strength and status these European Powers enjoyed thanks to their worldwide Empires, especially those of Britain, France and Germany, you can quickly see how this became the first truly global conflict. You should also look for maps that show you how the Great Powers split into the two alliances after 1914: the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia (with Italy after 1915 and the USA from 1917), the ‘Central powers’ of Germany, the Austro-Hungarians and Italy (until 1915) with Turkey (from 1915). And in case you don’t have time to find these maps for yourself, here are a few to help.

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This map shows the war alliances as they were at the start of the war in 1914. As mentioned, Italy actually switched sides in 1915, believing it had a better chance of gaining land and status there than with the central Powers. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central powers, again in 1915.

(Author: Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg: * historicair (French original); Source: here)

It’s important to note that the alliances of the Great War were not deep and long-standing relationships based on deep trust, lasting friendship and a long-shared vision. The treaty between Russia and France, for example, had only been signed in 1894 while the one between Britain and France was only agreed in 1904, just a decade before the war itself. The alliance between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been signed in 1879, and extended to include Italy in 1882. If you study some maps of Europe in 1914, you should also notice that some of the countries were a very different size and shape from what they are today; Germany, for example, was much bigger than it is today and had a border with Russia. There were also ‘states’ or empires, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which do not exist today but was an ancient territory that covered much of central and south-east Europe: modern Austria, Hungary, parts of Germany, Romania and Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Other countries with which we are very familiar today, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for example, did not exist and were parts of those former Empires. All of these states and regions, all of the many people, would be dramatically changed by the events of the next four years for this was war on a scale never seen before. After 1918, the whole map of Europe an, indeed, the world would be re-drawn.

So, why did this ‘Great War’ come about? Not surprisingly, this is not a small question and there can be no short answer. There were, instead, several long-term and medium-term factors which combined to provide the main fuel for the fire which was the Great War. One of these was, surprisingly, boredom and restlessness among the major European armies. The great European powers had a long history of fighting each other and, compared with most earlier periods, the nineteenth century (the 1800s) had actually been rather peaceful with little by way of a ‘proper’ war since the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (which is in Belgium by the way) in 1815. There had been the Crimean War, of course, which had seen the British and French humiliate the Russian Army in 1854-56 and also the very important ‘Franco-Prussian War’ (France v Germany) in 1870-71, but overall, things in Europe had been very quiet for the best part of a hundred years. During this period, most European conflicts had in fact taken place in the more remote parts of the world, as the main powers made moves to develop and control their Empires. ‘Real’ war between the big players just hadn’t happened.

Most people would consider this situation of relative peace to have been a decidedly ‘good thing’. However, during the years of peace, one great development had been transforming the world, namely industrialisation. It had changed everything: work, pleasure, transport, buildings, diets and many other things. Those ‘other things’ included weapons. Massive scientific and technological advances had impacted on steel production, chemicals, fuel and machinery, so that military power had been transformed by the creation of powerful new weapons which had been made available to armies and generals across the continent. Armies had also got bigger as populations grew rapidly on the back of industrial progress. But many of those soldiers, especially the generals, had gone through their whole careers without the opportunity to use them. Many of them were restless, and eagerly looking for an opportunity to use their new ‘toys’. It may seem ridiculous to us but conflict between nations was seen as a far more natural and expected fact of life back then. Boredom really was an important factor in starting the Great War.

Another factor which led up to the war was the shifting balance of power between Europe’s major players. England’s traditional enemies were, of course, France and Scotland. If anything, England (and later, Britain) has had a far greater bond with Germany than it ever had with France for most of history; the ‘entente’ or ‘understanding’ with the French was a recent development, based in part at least on King Edward VII’s love of all things French, especially wine, food and women. Meanwhile, Britain had started to face a growing threat from Germany, partly in economics (as the German industrial-based economy overtook Britain’s around 1900) but also militarily through its navy. The German-British ‘arms race’ was shifting the traditional ‘balance of power’ by which peace had been maintained in Europe. France also felt a deep sense of anxiety at the military threat posed by the industrial strength of Germany but her people also wanted revenge for their defeat to Prussia in 1871. This had been a massive blow to national pride and resulted in the loss of two French regions, Alsace and Lorraine, to German control.

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(Author: The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson; Source: here)

Although it may be hard to see him as a ‘Ladies’ Man’, Edward VII’s love of all things French played a major role in the alliance between the two countries which had such an impact on the Great War. He is pictured here with his wife, Queen Alexandra.

Germany, by the way, had only been properly united as one country on 18th January, 1871, as a result of victory in the Franco-Prussian War, having previously been the ‘Holy Roman Empire’. This Empire had existed for a thousand years and had united many states, over 200 at times. These states had included large regions like Prussia, Bavaria, Bohemia and Saxony, with others which were very much smaller, like Lichtenstein, Thurn and Taxis, Luxembourg and Fürstenerg. The key man in the whole process of German unification, and the creator of what would be called the ‘Second Reich’, was ‘The Iron Chancellor’, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), a huge figure on the European and world stage. He deserves a picture.

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Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898): The Iron Chancellor.(Author: Jacques Pilartz; Source: here)

 

Another key factor that led to the Great War was the arrival on the scene of the hugely important Emperor, Wilhelm II (1859-1941) or ‘Kaiser Bill’ as he was known to British troops. Wilhelm became Emperor of Germany in 1888 following the death of his father, Frederick III, after only 99 days on the throne. Wilhelm would remain as ruler until 18th November, 1918, just after the end of the war, when he abdicated. Kaiser Wilhelm II played a major part in creating the tension that almost made the Great War an ‘inevitability’, a word to be used with great caution in history. Wilhelm demands a little more attention.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) – a fine hat and a moustache to die for. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Wilhelm II was a complex character. Of course, many of us can claim to be ‘complex, brilliant, misunderstood’ figures but rarely do we come to wield the power of a dictator as Wilhelm did, though. He had numerous dangerous characteristics, being described as vain, ambitious, jealous and greedy for power. Wilhelm was also impulsive, inconsistent, obsessive and a bad listener; one can see that such a man as a dictator was potentially hazardous for all concerned. One other thing which is of particular significance, and what often sees in photos and film of him, is that he had been born with a withered left arm. Less obvious is that he also had terrible issues with his balance due to a problem with the development of the inner ear. This was very damaging to his self-image and to his ability to ride a horse, an essential for any royalty of the day. In learning to ride as a child, Wilhelm was put on a horse, day after day, for several years before he could stay upright. The falls he suffered and the abuse shouted at him, fired a fierce determination, a self-loathing at his ‘weaknesses’, a desire for power and a certain pleasure in the pain of others. Such characteristics can make an individual’s life and relationships challenging; in a ruler, they can bring disaster for millions.

Kaiser Wilhelm knew England well, being a grandson of Queen Victoria, the ‘Grandmother of Europe’, as she was known because so many of her children had married into other royal families around the continent. Wilhelm visited England often and was fascinated by the Royal Navy. It is fair to say that he actually had quite an obsession with Great Britain and looked across the North Sea with particular envy and a desire to emulate her success. From the Isle of Wight, where Victoria often received Wilhelm as a guest, he would see the great warships pass, and he nurtured the desire to create such a navy of his own. German ships were invited to join the procession to mark Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, but were overshadowed by the British, much to Wilhelm’s shame. Wilhelm was actually given his own ship in the Royal Navy and was an honorary ‘Rear-Admiral’, giving him a uniform he loved to wear.

Thanks to the rise of Germany’s industrial power, Wilhelm had the opportunity to address his naval and military needs. Thanks to Krupp’s steel, for example, he had the opportunity to build ‘a fleet of my own’, especially new battleships, and so to compete with Britain for control of at least some of the seas. The British Government watched with alarm as these mighty German ships were launched, and responded by building the largest battleships ever: the Dreadnoughts. Despite all this, Britain’s desire to stay out of European affairs was strong and the Empire was far more the focus of her attention. However, there were plenty of people who thought that if the Germans wanted a fight they could have one, and that the chance to ‘put them in their place’ was not to be missed. Tension was rising in the first decade of the century.

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A convoy of the most powerful ships of the age, the Dreadnoughts, including ‘Thunderer’, ‘Monarch’ and ‘Conqueror’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

It should be remembered that the prelude to war was not all to do with Germany. Another area of tension was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had been in decline for many decades. After 1848, the country had faced growing internal pressures as it tried to keep control of people of many different nationalities, cultures and religions within its borders. However, the memory of glory was strong among many leaders and generals, so that the there was not just a willingness to fight but even a desire for it, a cleansing of defeats past and the rebirth of a dynamic new empire. The relative successes of the Balkans War (1912-13) suggested they were still a powerful force.

Elsewhere, things were not so clear. Italian involvement was especially confused, although having signed the ‘Triple Alliance’ with Germany and the Austro-Hungarians in 1882 as a means of defending themselves against any threat from France and Russia, they did decide to honour their commitments when war started in 1914. However, there was much opposition to this from within Italy itself. The Ottoman Empire (basically modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Iran, parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia) would also become involved (after 1915) on the side of the Central Powers, partly as a way of withstanding any threat from Russia, its main enemy. The Ottoman Army was not strong, having fought badly in the Balkans War (1912-13) and this made an alliance essential. Fear was, therefore, a powerful reason for their involvement in the war.

So, why did the Great War start in 1914? In the briefest of summaries, we have: boredom in the military, coupled with the desire to try out new weapons; France’s desire for revenge and its old territories back; the push for Germany, under Wilhelm, to increase its naval power and rival Britain militarily; and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and Italy’s fear of their stronger neighbours. War would bring risks but also opportunities for power, land and glory. It is important to realise that the values which dominate societies do change overtime and this was especially true about Europe in the early years of the Twentieth Century. One factor which marked those days more than our own times was a widespread sense of nationalism, something well beyond patriotism, something far more aggressive, which looked down on foreigners with deep hatred. A word widely used in Britain was ‘Jingoism’, a sense of one’s own superiority with a belief in the right to win and to take over what belonged to someone else. This ‘nationalism’ meant decisions were made and events were interpreted by people who saw things in very stark terms: anger, revenge, glory, victory, hatred, distrust; us and them; right and wrong; kill or be killed.

Into the powder keg of fear, anger and greed came one horrid spark, a shot which would ring out around the world. The famous incident which finally set the European bonfire burning in the summer of 1914 has not been mentioned yet. The final element, the match or the trigger, was the death of a rather pompous and difficult man in a far off country, an event which might well have been a mere footnote in history had circumstances been a little different. This ‘spark’ was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Far from a footnote, his shooting was to become a headline on an epic scale.

On 28th June, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, travelled down by train to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had come under the control of the Austro-Hungarians in 1912-13 as a result of the ‘Balkan War’. They went to visit the soldiers of their Empire who were seeking to hold on to the region against local groups who were unhappy at their loss of independence. On their arrival at the railway station, the royal couple travelled down into Sarajevo by car but on the way they came under attack from a grenade thrown by a member of ‘The Black Hand Gang’, a group which wanted independence for Serbia, another region of the Balkans and also under the control of the Austro-Hungarians. They survived as Franz Ferdinand saw the bomb coming, put up his arm and deflected it away, unfortunately causing it to explode under the car behind. It injured about 20 people, including their attendants in the car.

The visit continued with a reception and speeches at the City Hall but Franz Ferdinand and Sophie wanted to visit the injured in the hospital. The driver of the car who was to take them to the hospital got lost as he took a wrong turn, one of the simplest, most devastating errors of all time. While he was reversing in a narrow street, trying to get back to the route, a member of the ‘Black Hand Gang’, Gavrilo Princip, just happened to walk by having come out of a shop; it was a pure coincidence that he saw the car. He was carrying a gun and fired two shots, hitting both the Archduke and his wife. Sophie, who was pregnant, died in her husband’s arms before he too died in the car. He was 51 at the time, and she was 46. Those shots would echo across the world. Princip was not executed because he was under 20 years of age; he died of tuberculosis while in prison in 1918. But his actions were to live on as the shootings would set Europe on fire for four years.

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, about five minutes before they were killed on 28th June, 1914. (Author: Bettmann/Corbis; Source: here)

 

Actually, it is only right to use another photo from that day, an image which is one of the most famous in history. This is Gavrilo Princip being arrested and taken to the police station in Sarajevo.

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(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did this killing of an heir to a throne, in an obscure town in a distant country, lead to 16 million deaths in the Great War? The key lies with the alliances described above. The Austro-Hungarians were furious with the Serbians for what had happened and gave them a list of 30 demands that they required to be met within a month, as reparation for the loss of the Archduke. The Serbians felt able to accept all but two of these demands. But this was not enough for the government in Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, triggering a chain reaction of declarations of allegiance on both sides.

The declaration of war set in train a series of alliances. Russia had an ancient agreement to defend Serbia and so declared war on the Austro-Hungarians. The Germans honoured their alliance with the Austro-Hungarians by declaring war on Russia, leading France to declare war on Germany. Germany was determined to avoid a direct attack on France owing to a line of huge forts which had been built on their joint border by the French since 1871, and so decided to invade with a sharp and dramatic attack through Belgium. This was called the ‘Schlieffen Plan’. But Britain had a treaty with Belgium going back to the 1830s saying it would protect Belgium if it were invaded. So it was that on Bank Holiday Monday, 4th August, 1914, Britain found itself at war with Germany as a way of defending ‘plucky little Belgium’. And the rest really is history.

 

Find out more

Books: There are obviously many books which deal with the Great War. A few novels and factual books which might be used to introduce the war include: ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks; ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque; the ‘Regeneration Trilogy’ by Pat Barker; ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain; ‘Forgotten Voices of the Great War’ by Max Arthur; ‘The Great War, 1914-1918’ by Peter Hart; ‘The Western Front’ by Richard Holmes, and ‘1914-1918’ (BBC).

TV documentaries: ‘1914-1918’, ‘First World War in Colour’, ‘The Western Front’, ‘The Great War’

Films and dramatisations: ‘The Battle of the Somme’ (1916), ‘The Trench’, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘A very long engagement’, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Birdsong’.

War Poets: ‘Poems of the Great War’ (Penguin): Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney and many others.

Maps: Study maps of Europe from 1914 and from the 1920s to analyse the creation of new countries and the changes to old borders.