It was am­a­teur lead­ers, not evil men, who plunged world into a ter­ri­ble war


National Post (National Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - Con­rad BlaCk Na­tional Post cblet­

This Sun­day the world ob­serves the cen­te­nary of the end of the First World War, a war of pre­vi­ously unimag­ined de­struc­tive­ness. Pre-war Eu­rope was largely di­rected by royal per­son­ages re­lated to each other. The Ger­man em­peror, Wil­liam II, was a cousin of the Rus­sian em­peror, Ni­cholas II, and their grand­mother and grand­mother-in-law in the case of Ni­cholas, was Vic­to­ria, queen and em­press, grand­mother also of Bri­tain’s King Ge­orge V, cousin of the Kaiser and the Czar.

The world blun­dered into war on a se­quence of hair-trig­gers. On June 28, 1914, the heir to the Hab­s­burg throne of the 700-year-old dy­nasty that ruled in Vi­enna, then evolved from the spu­ri­ously named Holy Ro­man Empire to the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Empire, Franz Fer­di­nand, was as­sas­si­nated in Sara­jevo, Bos­nia. Aus­tria-Hun­gary had abruptly an­nexed Bos­nia, con­trary to pop­u­lar wishes. The Ger­man em­peror gave the ven­er­a­ble Franz Josef, em­peror in Vi­enna for 68 years, and his di­vided gov­ern­ment “a blank cheque” to ex­act re­venge on Ser­bia, the Slavic power that had in­spired Bos­nian re­sis­tance to Vi­enna and the as­sas­sin, Gavrilo Prin­cip. The Aus­tro -Hun­gar­ian de­mands were ac­cepted apart from the in­sis­tence on the pros­e­cu­tion of Ser­bian pan-Slav ac­tivists, prac­ti­cally re­gard­less of ev­i­dence.

At this, Ser­bia balked and asked the as­sis­tance of its pan-Slav guarantor, Rus­sia, which had just re­ceived a visit from the pres­i­dent and prime min­is­ter of France, Ray­mond Poin­caré and René Vi­viani. Th­ese two coun­tries were al­lies op­po­site ram­pant im­pe­rial Ger­many and what had be­come its some­what cal­ci­fied, poly­glot, client-empire gov­erned from Vi­enna and Bu­dapest. The French lead­ers urged the Rus­sians not to be bul­lied. The world was gen­er­ally sym­pa­thetic to Vi­enna and to Franz Josef, and few coun­tries were pre­pared to ex­press much tol­er­a­tion of as­sas­si­na­tion. Ber­lin and Vi­enna thought Rus­sia was bluff­ing in its pro­fessed sup­port of Ser­bia against the full A us tr o-Hun­gar­ian de­mands, and on July 28, Aus­tria- Hun­gary de­clared war on Ser­bia.

Rus­sia mo­bi­lized against Aus­tria-Hun­gary, but when Kaiser Wil­helm de­manded that Rus­sia not threaten Ger­many, his cousin the Czar raised his or­der to a gen­eral mo­bi­liza­tion. Ger­many de­clared war on Rus­sia on Aug. 1. Th­ese im­ma­ture despots, not evil men, but ut­terly ir­re­spon­si­ble and neu­rotic in the case of the Ger­man em­peror, and plod­ding and un­worldly in the case of Czar Ni­cholas, thus had be­gun the great­est war be­tween Eu­rope’s great pow­ers since Water­loo 99 years be­fore, with no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and not a dis­cernible thought as to where this might lead. (Of course, the Hab­s­burgs, Ro­manovs, and Ho­hen­zollerns were all out four years later, and the en­tire Ro­manov fam­ily, down to young chil­dren, would be mur­dered be­fore it was all over.) Bel­gium de­clined to give Ger­many free pas­sage into France for its armies, af­ter France had de­clined to as­sure Ger­many of its neu­tral­ity in the event of Ger­many be­ing at war with France’s ally, Rus­sia. Ger­many in­vaded Bel­gium, a coun­try Bri­tish states­men had largely de­vised and had al­ways guar­antied, and Ger­many de­clared war on France on Aug. 3. Great Bri­tain, loyal to its guar­anty of Bel­gium and to its al­liance with France, af­ter one of the mem­o­rable ad­dresses of Bri­tish par­lia­men­tary his­tory by the for­eign sec­re­tary, Sir Ed­ward Grey, de­clared war on Ger­many on Aug .4. As the Bri­tish ul­ti­ma­tum to Ger­many ex­pired, Grey said, from his of­fice look­ing out at White­hall: “The lights are go­ing out all over Eu­rope. We shall not see them on again in our time.” In Canada, prime min­is­ter Robert Bor­den in­ter­rupted his Muskoka hol­i­day, re­turned to Ot­tawa and took ac­tion that con­firmed that Canada was at war when Bri­tain was.

All Eu­rope was at war and no one re­ally knew why. The task of ex­plain­ing this hor­ri­ble, stale­mated war re­quired greater and more imag­i­na­tive ex­pla­na­tion as blood-soaked years passed. It would be hor­ri­ble trench war­fare in France and Bel­gium, where men had to charge ma­chine guns and ar­tillery, to, as one sar­donic Bri­tish writer put it, take thou­sands of ca­su­al­ties “to move the army com­man­der’s drinks cup­board half a mile closer to Ber­lin.” Thus did this hor­ri­ble war con­tinue, year af­ter year. The Ger­man em­peror fi­nally threw all cau­tion to the winds and agreed to un­re­stricted sub­ma­rine war­fare on neu­tral ship­ping, which, as ex­pected, brought the United States into the war.

The Rus­sian monar­chy col­lapsed, as did the Aus­trian, and fi­nally the Ger­man. The Kaiser fled to the neu­tral Nether­lands, where he resided un­til his peace­ful death in 1941. The supreme com­man­der of the Al­lied armies was Mar­shal Foch of France, the Eisen­hower of the First World War. As an of­fi­cer-can­di­date in the Metz mil­i­tary school he had learned from the boom­ing of the Ger­man guns at the end of the Franco-Prus­sian War in 1871 that Metz had be­come a city of the Ger­man Empire. Forty-seven years later, at the head of, in Bri­tish mil­i­tary his­to­rian Basil Lid­dell Hart’s words, “the great­est host in hu­man his­tory,” 300 di­vi­sions, nearly six mil­lion bat­tle-hard­ened sol­diers, he re­stored Metz to the French Repub­lic. Foch was one of the heroes of my youth and there is a bust of him be­side me as I write.

Canada be­came a full-scale ally in the First World War, and re­ceived world-recog­ni­tion for its suc­cess at Vimy in April 1917, when all four of our di­vi­sions were able to at­tack to­gether and gain an im­por­tant vic­tory.

Six­teen mil­lion peo­ple died and 21 mil­lion were wounded in the First World War, in­clud­ing 67,000 Cana­dian dead and 150,000 wounded. Al­most all our forces were vol­un­teers, and Canada was it­self never un­der threat. This was a dis­tress­ing to­tal of dead and wounded for an over­seas coun­try of only eight mil­lion peo­ple, but, with the Aus­tralians and New Zealan­ders, a uniquely heroic sac­ri­fice of brave and ide­al­is­tic peo­ple for a prin­ci­ple and not even for na­tional self-de­fence. We fought for the cause of free­dom through­out the world, and barely 50 years af­ter Con­fed­er­a­tion, gained recog­ni­tion as an im­por­tant and in­de­pen­dent state and one of the found­ing mem­bers of the League of Na­tions.

The end­ing was, as Foch said, “Not a peace but a 20-year cease­fire.” We would all go at it again, and to greater suc­cess, in the Sec­ond World War, as Bor­den, Cle­menceau, Lloyd Ge­orge, and Wil­son, tal­ented lead­ers though they were, were not as distin­guished as King, de Gaulle, Churchill and Roo­sevelt, who led the demo­cratic world to vic­tory. By san­guinary in­cre­ments, we ad­vance hu­man lib­erty and pro­mote in­ter­na­tional law. Canada has done its part and more. We have only en­gaged in just wars, on is­sues of prin­ci­ple, for no gain for our­selves, and have al­ways fought with dis­tinc­tion and al­ways on the win­ning side. It is a na­tional his­tory that in­cites pride but not chau­vin­ism.

May our glo­ri­ous dead of the wars of the past cen­tury en­joy eter­nal rest with the Prince of Peace, and may they re­pose al­ways in the hon­oured and grate­ful mem­ory of the coun­try and the civ­i­liza­tion for which they made the high­est and no­blest sac­ri­fice. Re­mem­ber them on No­vem­ber 11.

Note: Fol­low­ing my col­umn last week, there have been many in­quiries about how to as­sist Dr. Brian Day in his splen­did ef­fort to re­sist the per­se­cu­tion of the gov­ern­ment of Bri­tish Columbia over the right of his clinic to pro­vide so­phis­ti­cated med­i­cal ser­vices to those dis­cour­aged by the long wait­ing lines in the pub­lic health ser­vice for sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures. Such con­tri­bu­tions would be very grate­fully re­ceived and should be made to the Cana­dian Constitution Foun­da­tion, At­ten­tion Cam­bie Case, sec­ond Floor, 515 11th Av­enue, Cal­gary, Alta., T2R 0C8. A char­i­ta­ble re­ceipt will be is­sued. This brave and pub­lic-spir­ited doc­tor can­not be for­saken and left to face the op­pres­sion of the Bri­tish Columbia gov­ern­ment unas­sisted. This is a cause of in­tel­li­gent pub­lic pol­icy and ele­men­tal hu­man de­cency.

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