World War One

World War One – The War to end all Wars

On the 28th June 1914 at 11.00am the first shots of World War One were fired. At 11.00am on the 11th of November 1918 The Great War ended, having claimed 38,880,000 causalities; killed, wounded or missing. The 'War to End All Wars' devastated many nations, destroyed the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, knocked the Kaiser from his throne and precipitated revolution and social unrest that affected the rest of the world and the rest of the century. The unjust ‘Peace Settlement’, the Treaty of Versailles directly contributed to the eruption of war 21 years later.

Before 1914 Europe had experienced half a century of peace since the last major conflict, the Crimean War of 1853-56, however the map and balance of power in Europe had changed considerably. Germany had united in 1870 and become an advanced economic and military power, Italy had united in 1860 and looked enviously at French and Austrian territory and Russia had seemingly stalled, suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905 which caused social unrest that shook the Tsar’s throne. The ancient Ottoman Turk Empire was wheezing in its death throes and had lost practically all its European territory by 1912 and was financially and militarily overdrawn. The colonial vultures of Europe were circling, waiting for the Ottoman carcase to finally fall. Britain was dealing with demands for Irish Home Rule while a myriad of nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were all beseeching their octogenarian Emperor with demands. Even peaceful Scandinavia had experienced tensions which resulted in Norway cutting its ties to the Swedish crown in 1905 and choosing their own King.

On Sunday the 28th June 1914 the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were touring the capital of their ethnically diverse province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A grenade was thrown at their car and the Archduke repelled it shouting ‘So you welcome your guests with bombs’. Bravely or foolishly he insisted on visiting the injured in Sarajevo Hospital and while their car crossed the Latin Bridge, Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian member of the terrorist group The Black Hand, stepped up to their car and shot the Royal couple. The Duke’s last words were to his dying wife ‘Don't die darling, live for my children’

A few days before the Assassination the Vatican had signed a concordat with Serbia which had considerably weakened Austria’s influence in the Balkans causing alarm at the rise and claims of Serbia on Serb populated regions within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The heir was not popular and many, including the Emperor Franz Josef were relieved he would not succeed him following his murder. However most of Austria-Hungary’s military felt Serbia needed to be dealt with eventually and the assassination provided them the opportunity for war. Serbian involvement in the Assassination seemed certain so when Serbia rejected Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum, war was declared on 28th July 1914, one month after the Royal deaths. By 1914 a complex web of alliances had formed which had a domino effect dragging the world into an abyss it did not expect.

Russia readied its forces to aid Serbia and despite a flurry of friendly telegrams between Berlin and St Petersburg known as the Willy-Nicky Correspondence, named after Tsar Nicholas of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, both sides prepared for the endless misery predicted in Willy’s last telegram. Russia’s mobilisation to support Serbia, caused Germany to mobilise in support of Austria-Hungary, which resulted in France’s mobilisation to support Russia. On the 1st August 1914 Germany declared war on Russia causing the dominos to fall. In accordance with Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, Germany attempted to sweep through Belgium on their way to Paris, resulting in Britain’s entry into the war in defence of Belgium. All sides showed enthusiasm for war and their military and political leaders claimed the war would be short despite abundant evidence it would be long and costly. Claims the war would be over by Christmas were farcical.