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

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.

Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg

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.

472px-Edward_VII_and_Alexandra_after_Gunn_&_Stuart

(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.

403px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2005-0057,_Otto_von_Bismarck

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.

index

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.

800px-UK_dreadnoughts_through_the_Solent

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.

Archduke_Franz_with_his_wife

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.

untitled

(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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation