A hundred years ago today Europe had been at boiling point for more than a month. In Britain the August bank holiday weekend fell on the fourth of August 1914 and young men hurried to enlist as Britain declared war, keen to take part before it was all over. The British Expeditionary Force was cheered as it sailed for France, expecting it to all be over by Christmas.
They were wrong, and even with the benefit of a century of hindsight, it’s still staggering just how wrong everyone was. There had been a foretaste of trench warfare during the American Civil War fifty years earlier, but nobody had expected the world’s first industrial-scale warfare to degenerate into a four-year stalemate between evenly matched armies across some of the most fertile and pleasant farmland in Europe that stretches from the Channel to the Swiss border.
It was more than four years before it was all over, by which time the world had become a very different place. The First World War is an era that for us Brits has a lasting fascination. Was it the futility of it all, or the because it ushered in the beginning of the demise of the European nations as imperial powers? Of those warring nations, Britain is the only one still with a hereditary head of state today. Or does its fascination stem from the turmoil and the overturning of so many class structures and accepted norms?
There is something deeply poignant about the fading national memory of that war, the black-and-white newsreels of young men marching off to war with smiles on their faces, the haunting songs and poetry of the era, all those paper poppies that come out in November. You don’t have to travel far through eastern France to stumble on a cemetery of rows of identical headstones, or far in in England to find a memorial of the kind that virtually every town and village has to remind us of its young men who didn’t come home.
On the evening of the third of August, after days of intense diplomacy as the situation across Europe deteriorated, the British foreign minister of the day, Sir Edward Grey, famously remarked to a friend that ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’
Grey had a keener appreciation of what was at stake than did most people. Everyone else expected the war to last a matter of weeks before the victorious troops would be home, probably still with smiles on their faces. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June that set the ball rolling was by no means the first piece of Balkan brinkmanship. There had been a crisis the year before, and before that in 1911. The expectation was that Austria-Hungary would sort out its own problems with Serbia before Russia, Serbia’s big ally in the east, could take a hand. It was even hoped that Austria-Hungary could quickly and discreetly deal with the problems in its own back yard before things could escalate.
The parallels with the state of the world today are unnerving. There are flashpoints of fury and hatred smouldering around the world. The Arab Spring, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing unrest in eastern Ukraine, and the misery of Gaza bear all the hallmarks of the sabre-rattling nationalism and religious divides that had fermented in the Balkans in the years leading up to 1914 and which also exploded into a brutal conflict in what had been Yugoslavia practically before Tito was even cold.
The difference is that some of the players have changed. The established powers are changing as China is about to become the dominant world power and Russia clearly expects to reclaim its place with the heavyweights. The western nations have little stomach for a fight. Western Europe has had too many wars fought across it already and nobody seriously wants another one, especially now that the stakes are so astronomically higher than they were when the British Expeditionary Force sailed cheerfully across the Channel, ostensibly to rescue plucky little Belgium from Prussian brutality, but in reality to honour its agreement with France and Russia to mobilise if Germany and Austria-Hungary did so first.
In 1914 only a few far-sighted people had a vision of what was about to be unleashed. Today we ought to know better.