On 4 February 2012, Florence Green died. Born in Edmonton, London in 1901, she was 110 years old. Having been a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force, she was also the last veteran of the First World War. The ‘Great War’, as it was originally called, had truly passed from living memory into history.
It all started in southeastern Europe, in the corner of the Balkans, an area known for its volatile tendencies but isolated enough for it not to concern the average person on the streets of London, Paris or Brussels, let alone the citizens of Sydney, Wellington or Madras. Yet within just over a month of the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, as the efforts of negotiation and diplomatic bluffs failed, war had erupted, spreading across Europe then across the globe. But no matter, it would be a short war – finished before the fall of the autumn leaves or over by Christmas. Motivated by patriotism and nationalism, and peppered, in varying degrees, by ambition, prestige, fear, revenge, obligation or simply survival, nations went to war.
In 1914, the war of people’s imagination lay in the previous century – colourful uniforms, military bands playing, flags flying and men on horseback, and short, sharp conflicts. But 1914 proved to be different, a watershed, as old notions of war were trampled in the mud. No one could have perceived such a war of unimaginable horror, fought on such an unprecedented scale; a war fought with terrifying new weapons, of death on an industrial magnitude, a war that involved so many nations and reached into the very fabric of society; a war that brought to an end the Belle Époqueof Edwardian life. The events of 1914, and the war that followed, changed the world and shaped the twentieth century.
This, in an hour, is 1914.
Europe in the early twentieth century was a continent of superpowers and would-be superpowers. Motivated by ambitions of self-aggrandizement and self-preservation, they eyed each other with suspicion, envy and often fear bordering on the paranoia.
Germany was the cause of much of this fear. A unified country only since 1871, Germany, under the careful management of its chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had rapidly built itself up into a modern, militaristic, industrial powerhouse. It looked to the colonial assets of its neighbours, especially the vast, sprawling empire of Great Britain, and set on a course of obtaining its own empire, colonies, its own ‘place in the sun’. And for that, it needed a navy that could rival Britain’s, whose naval supremacy had ruled the waves since the days of Nelson a century before. The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, had, as a boy, admired the ‘proud British ships’, and wished as an adult to ‘possess a navy as fine as the English’.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1905
Germany realized that Russia was becoming stronger, building its military and industrial capacity and extending its network of railways – a vital factor in moving huge armies across large distances. If there was to be war, the longer it was delayed, the greater the strength of Russia: ‘Every year we wait, lessens our chances,’ said the German chief-of-staff, Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger).
Great Britain, on her part, wanted nothing more than to protect her empire – which, as every British schoolchild was taught, covered a quarter of the globe’s landmass – and the associated opportunities for commerce the empire provided. For much of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Britain had remained aloof from international affairs, concentrating only on matters of self-interest and its empire consisting of 400 million people – a situation it called its ‘splendid isolation’. The emergence of Germany as a perceived new threat, to both Britain’s colonial holdings and to the nation itself, changed that.
Knowing the importance of its navy not simply for the empire but for home security as well, and increasingly fearful of Germany’s expansive desires, Britain was determined to maintain its dominance. In 1906, Britain launched the first of a much-feared new class of battleship, HMS Dreadnought, which was far superior to anything that had previously sailed. As well as this, Britain implemented legislation to ensure continual commitment to naval expansion, despite the enormous cost involved, thus engaging in an arms race with Germany. (By 1914, Britain’s fleet of battleships numbered forty-nine, outstripping Germany’s fleet of twenty-nine.)
Britain’s fears of German intent were also fuelled by the widening of the Kiel Canal. The sixty-mile canal, originally opened in 1895, cut through the base of the Jutland peninsula, linking the Baltic Sea on the east and the North Sea on the west. Its widening, and deepening, completed in early 1914, allowed the passage of German warships, giving them easy access into the North Sea, a prospect viewed with dismay in Britain.
Britain’s sense of military superiority had been temporarily dented following the Second Boer War of 1899 to 1902. Technically, Britain had walked away the victors, but that it took three years and some unethical, ungentlemanly tactics to defeat a perceived ragamuffin collection of white South Africans of Dutch origin had shaken the British military and political establishment to the core. But calls in Britain to introduce military conscription in order to be better prepared in the event of a future war, and not suffer another humiliation as experienced in South Africa, were continually dismissed by Herbert Asquith, Liberal prime minister from 1908.
Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz Joseph, c. 1915
France was a nation that was still licking its wounds since the humiliating defeat to the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1. The Prussians, Germany’s predecessors, had taken as a spoil of war the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and extracted massive reparations to the tune of 5 billion francs, and for the French this was the cause of much indignation. It was a wrong that needed to be righted. But the French knew full well they were no match for the expanding might of Germany. And this was the cause of much anxiety.
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia
Russia also harboured dreams of expansion – towards the Pacific in the east. But, after a two-year war, the Russians, like the British in South Africa, were humbled by a supposedly inferior foe, the Japanese. The Russian tsar, Nicholas II, had hoped the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 would distract his people and quell the simmering unrest infecting his empire and restore national prestige. Instead, defeat merely intensified the sense of dissatisfaction with the tsar and his autocratic rule, leading to unrest and public demonstrations. Nicholas responded to what became known as the Russian Revolution of 1905 with the promise of democracy and reform, promises he reneged on almost as soon as they had been implemented.
On the western side of its empire, Russia relied on the imports and exports transported across the Black Sea. In order to reach the Black Sea, Russian ships needed continual access through the Turkish Straits, including the Dardanelles. When, in 1912, the Ottoman Empire had closed the Dardanelles, it caused temporary chaos to the Russian economy. Thus, Russia eyed the disintegrating Ottoman Empire with both interest and concern.
While Britain’s empire was still flourishing, notwithstanding the odd reverse, the empire of Austria-Hungary, once the Holy Roman Empire, was slowly crumbling. Ruled since 1848 by the elderly Franz Joseph, the empire encompassed several ethnic groups, and not all of them happily included. Particularly resentful were the Bosnian Slavs. Bosnia, having been shackled for three centuries to the Ottoman Empire, had become, in 1878, part of Austria-Hungary and, from 1908, a fully annexed part of it. The Slavs of Bosnia wished unification with their fellow Slavs to the south, in Serbia. But the loss of territory, and thereby status, and the example it would provide to other disgruntled ethnicities within the empire, was not something the Austro-Hungarian leadership was prepared to contemplate.
Serbia itself had only been a fully independent nation since 1882, but had flexed its military muscle in defeating first the Ottoman Empire and then Bulgaria in two Balkan Wars between 1912 and 1913. It viewed the empire immediately to its north with mounting hostility. As a landlocked nation, Serbia desired access to the Adriatic but with Bosnia annexed by Austria-Hungary, and Albania, also recently established as an independent nation, blocking the route further south, they were to remain frustrated.
Italy, like Germany, was a new country, unified in 1861, and, like Germany, it desired its own empire. An excursion to capture Tunisia was thwarted in 1881 by the French and worse still for Italy’s reputation was a humiliating defeat to the Ethiopians in 1896. But Italy did gain sovereignty over Libya, having defeated the Ottomans in 1912.
Belgium wished to remain aloof from these undercurrents of international manoeuvring, putting its faith in the 1839 Treaty of London where, among the signatories recognizing its neutrality, were Great Britain and Germany. Meanwhile, between 1885 and 1908, the Belgian king, Leopold II, put his efforts into running his own empire, the Congo Free State, an enterprise which caused the death of over 10 million Congolese.