IN THE BEGINNING
When the Great War, another term for World War I, began, the world, in particular Europe, was very much rooted in tradition and class. Populations believed in the ruling class and nationalism and imperialism were embraced as the building blocks of great nations who sought to create and maintain empires. For hundreds of years European nations would take part in wars to extend their territories of control and influence and so create wealth and trade. In fact many Germans attributed war to having been an essential part of unification in the mid-to- late 19th century. In particular the Franco-Prussian war which saw the Empire of Germany proclaimed in Paris following the French defeat in 1871. A general, Carl von Clausewitz from Prussia (later to become part of Germany) declared, “war is politics by another means” - something many 19th century countries practiced. Not least Great Britain who maintained a massive navy and strong armies as they ruled, at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, one-third of the planet. The strength, influence and future of a country were based on its military, the size of its armies, the number of warships etc. By the turn of the 20th century there was a push for a new world order, Germany sought as they called it “our place in the sun”, Russia was pushing for control of the Balkans and the emerging Pacific nations of Japan and the mighty USA were now looking at flexing their political and ultimately their military might to extend their boundaries. The effects of more than 100 years of the industrial revolution saw military production faster and more sophisticated than in previous generations. The weapons that science had invented and would continue to devise were both frightening in their terror and destructive in their nature. Unfortunately the leaders and their generals, by and large, were 100 years behind the advances that technologies now presented and used tactics that were obsolete in offensive actions where artillery and the machine gun wrought carnage in the no-man’s land between the combatants. The First World War, presumably, started after a teenager murdered Austrian-Hungarian nobility in a “Balkan backwater” igniting flames of war that spread across the globe as empires fought to consolidate and expand their control over borders and cultures. Radical Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip signed his name into the history books in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 by assassinating Austro-Hungarian Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie during their visit to the region. What was to happen in the weeks following those murders was to have an effect, worldwide, over the following four years, in a war that shaped the 20th century and influences events to this day. The deaths of the heir presumptive to the Austrian-Hungarian throne and his wife should have, at worst, led to a conflict between the Serbian and Austro-Hungarian Armies. There had been two wars in the previous 18 months in that region. However, a complex web of treaties and assurances would see military alliances formed that would inevitably lead to conflict. In the case of Serbia ethnic and cultural ties to mother Russia saw Tsar Nicholas mobilise armies as Germany ruled by his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm threatened to intervene on behalf of the Austro-Hungarians. Events then moved swiftly to threaten the outbreak of war. In response to the Russian mobilisation of its forces and the movement of troops towards its borders, the German army rushed men and equipment to face the imminent threat. However, the Germans knew that France, part of the Triple Entente, an alliance with Britain and Russia, would be compelled under her treaties with those countries to intervene on the side of Russia. With that in mind, the Germans had drawn up a plan almost a decade before, the Von Schlieffen plan, which would deal with France by invading through Belgium. The plan was then to destroy the French army before re-deploying troops to deal with the Russian threat to the eastern borders. Great Britain and her Empire had a treaty with Belgium that would see it rush to defend the small nation if threatened. One must wonder what would have happened if the Germans invaded France without passing through the small nation where Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated 100 years before at Waterloo. Historians have since argued that Britain would have found a way to watch, what at that stage was a European conflict, from the sidelines and then profit from the results of that conflict. Sadly for Australia and the dominions this was not to be, as the Von Schlieffen plan involved attacks at two places in a pincer movement that would see the French forces cut in half and Paris surrounded, or so it was hoped. Despite frantic diplomatic efforts for a month following the assassination in Sarajevo, things were at an impasse and for Germany it may well have been a misunderstanding that led to the invasion of Belgium. With upwards of one million men on the French and Belgian borders on August 1, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered General Helmuth von Moltke to “march the whole of the army to the east” after being wrongly informed the British would remain neutral if France was not attacked. Moltke told the Kaiser that attempting to redeploy a million men was unthinkable, and making it possible for the French to attack the Germans “in the rear” would prove disastrous. Yet Wilhelm insisted that the German army should not march into Luxembourg until he received a telegram sent by his cousin King George V of Britain, who made it clear that there had been a misunderstanding. Eventually the Kaiser told Moltke, “Now you can do what you want.” On August 2, Germany occupied Luxembourg, and on August 3 declared war on France. On the same day, they sent the Belgian government an ultimatum demanding unimpeded right of way through any part of Belgium, which was refused. Early on the morning of August 4, the Germans invaded; King Albert of Belgium ordered his military to resist and called for assistance under the 1839 Treaty of London. Britain demanded Germany comply with the Treaty and respect Belgian neutrality. It declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914 (effective from 23:00), following an “unsatisfactory reply”. So began in earnest a war that changed the world forever. Over the next four years, the Great War (as World War I was then called) would grow to involve Turkey, (the Ottoman Empire) Italy, Japan, the Middle East and the United States, among other countries.