November 11th, 2008 marked the 90th anniversary of the armistice which ended what was then considered The Great War. In later decades it would become known as the First World War, especially after an even greater war was begun worldwide a mere 21 years later.
Some would say World War II was but a continuation of the first, but much more destructive and less of a surprise when it came to carnage. But what was viewed at first as a “noble cause” for nearly all the major powers of Europe metastasized into a blood letting of biblical proportions, cruelty on a mechanized level never seen by modern man. It shocked the populaces of most nations on Earth as well as robbing Europe and destroying so many possibilities in the muddy trenches that ran from the Swiss border to the English Channel. In the end, nearly 10 million soldiers were dead and the great world powers of the early 20th century were now mere shells of their former selves.
And it was so unnecessary.
The war of 1914-1918 could very well be summed up as a family squabble gone terribly wrong. King George V of Great Britain and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were first cousins, both referring to Queen Victoria as Grandmother. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia was the nephew to Queen Victoria, thus a cousin to the Kaiser. And then there was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a land of so many different nationalities and languages it was only a matter of time before one or more of these entities sought independence. As it was, old Otto von Bismarck, the iron chancellor who helped create a united Germany after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, was heard to comment that it would be “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” which ignited a European war.
It’s not always a wonderful thing to be correct when it comes to catastrophes, but Bismarck hit the nail square. It took two tries on June 28, 1914, but Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and his wife Sophie managed to dodge a bomb-throwing assassin in the morning but ended up being shot to death later in the day. The assassins, involved in a Serbian / Bosnian group known as the Black Hand, selected the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to launch their revenge for what was viewed as an insult to Serbian pride (this day was the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, a Serbian defeat at the hands of Muslims, and the archduke’s visit caused a great deal of indignation among Serbian militants).
The archduke and his wife were buried rather quickly and the assassins arrested, with the hope this very ugly incident would soon be forgotten. Emperor Franz Josef of Austria would not hear of it and raged to the Kaiser that this independent Serbia was attempting to unite all the Slavs under its flag, thus tearing apart the Empire he ruled over. Since Russia was sympathetic to the aspirations of Serbia (with some Russian elements involved in the destabilizing of the region), the Kaiser nonetheless misread his cousin “Nicky’s” intentions and figured Russia ill-prepared to back up any mutually agreed alliances should Austria decide to make good on its threat to declare war on Serbia.
On July 23, Austria demanded Serbia admit its part in the assassination and to participate in a commission of inquiry. There were some other demands as well, and Serbia appeared to accept most of them, grudgingly, but not fast enough for the Austrians and war was declared by July 25, and the Serbian capital of Belgrade bombarded. “This means a European war,” one very shocked Russian diplomat stated to the Austrian ambassador. “You are setting Europe alight.”
And thus the family squabble began with Russia declaring war on Austria, since they had an understanding with Serbia; the Germans declaring war on Russia, since their alliance was with Austria-Hungary; the French declaring war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, since they had an alliance with Russia; and finally the British entering on the side of France and Russia after Germany made the mistake of attempting an invasion of France by way of neutral Belgium. Once all these armies had mobilized in August there was no stopping the war. And had the German Schlieffen Plan been realized (poor Belgium’s rude entry into the war), and Paris sacked before the onset of fall, the war probably would have ended on a less tragic note. But the French held and Paris was spared and the British had arrived in time to stop the Germans dead in their tracks. Once the Germans had failed to take Paris, the war was lost. But it would be another 39 months and the eventual entry of the United States into the war to convince the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) to throw in the towel.
During Christmas 1914, an unofficial cease fire developed along the trenches, and the Germans, French and British troops were known to be sharing dinners, drinks and soccer with one another. Had the generals and politicians taken heed, a peace could have been negotiated. Instead, they admonished their soldiers and condemned them do horrible slaughter in such battles as Verdun, Ypres, The Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, Chemin des Dames and Vimy Ridge, just to name a few. Artillery fire from Passchendaele was so great the citizens of London could hear it, and even see the flashes of light at night. And the battle of Verdun lasted so long that more than a million soldiers died. And all this because leaders in the major European capitals would not take it upon themselves to end a war that should never have happened.
By 1918 Russia had gone Communist, the Austro-Hungarian Empire split apart and the Kaiser forced to abdicate. As for the allies, they were so appalled by the carnage that when another menace reared its head less than 20 years later they sought appeasement rather than confrontation.
It was a war which truly changed the makeup of Europe and the lives of millions around the globe. Who would have ever thought an assassination in the Balkans would eventually involve the United States, but it did. My grandfather fought in the First World War and my father would serve in the Second, a byproduct of the first. As we honor the American veterans who have served our nation, also honor all those from Europe who died in the trenches.