“War might burst from a clump of trees” - the start of the “War to end all war”
“Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”
Towards the end of July 1914 French Premier René Viviani, in his own words, was “haunted by a fear that war might burst from a clump of trees, from a meeting of two patrols, from a threatening gesture … a black look, a brutal word, a shot!” (quoted in Barbara W. Tuchman's brilliant book The Guns of August, Constable, 1962).
It was indeed a shot which started the complex series of events which led, finally, to the actual outbreak of the worst war the world had known to that date, a shot fired by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.
Princip actually fired two shots but the one that counted was the one which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, fulfilling Bismarck's prediction that what would set off the next war was “Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”
For us, wild Winter,
The “damned foolish thing” led to Austria sending an ultimatum to Serbia, with German support, on 23 July. The Serbian reply was not to Austria's liking and on 28 July Austria declared war on Serbia, and attacked Belgrade the next day.
And so the machinery that brought the world of Europe a “wild winter” began to chug and splutter into deathly action. Wilfred Owen wrote a dirge called “1914”:
War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in.
The foul tornado, centred at Berlin,
Is over all the width of Europe whirled,
Rending the sails of progress. Rent or furled
Are all Art's ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin
Famines of thought and feeling. Love's wine's thin.
The grain of human Autumn rots, down-hurled.
For after Spring had bloomed in early Greece,
And Summer blazed her glory out with Rome,
An Autumn softly fell, a harvest home,
A slow grand age, and rich with all increase.
But now, for us, wild Winter, and the need
Of sowings for new Spring, and blood for seed.
Germany began, to the Kaiser's no great relish, to mobilise for war on two fronts as the other great powers, Britain, France and Russia, began their own mobilisations to honour treaties made years before.
New technologies of war
New technologies in warfare
The “perishing great darkness” started to close in, a darkness such as the world had never seen before, a darkness in which the maniacal machinery of war was refined and made ever more deadly, more vicious, more inhuman, to an extent scarcely imaginable before.
The darkness, by the time the fighting ended, had engaged almost 43 million on the Allied side and 25 million on the other side, representing some 14 countries (some of which no longer exist) across the Northern Hemisphere (the Southern Hemisphere countries that were involved were mostly parts of the Imperial Powers of the North).
Casualties on the Allied side totalled 22.5 million dead, wounded or missing, while the Central Powers suffered casualties of 16.5 million. Of the casualties on both sides some 9 million soldiers died, an unprecedented number.
The combatant countries deployed new technologies in warfare – tanks, submarines, torpedoes and aeroplanes; bombs, blimps and balloons; poison gases and early forms of biological weapons – to increasingly deadly effect.
The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
In the last weeks of July 1914 leaders and diplomats of all the involved countries were involved in intense activities with ultimatums and diplomatic notes creating what was called the “July Crisis” - a time of great anxiety to the people of all the countries involved.
France was in a state of high tension, though the key to the coming conflict was Belgium, her neutrality guaranteed by the Treaty of London signed by all the great European countries in 1839. German troops entered Belgium in violation of the Treaty early on the morning of 4 August, having declared war on France the day before.
It was this treaty which German chancellor Theobold von Bethmann-Holweg famously dismissed as a “scrap of paper” when the British Ambassador to the Court of the Kaiser Wilhelm II, Sir Edward Goschen, presented his government's ultimatum stating that Britain was bound to “uphold the neutrality of Belgium and the observance of the treaty to which Germany is as much a party as ourselves.” By midnight Britain was at war with the German Empire, joining France and Russia in the fray. The Kaiser's worst nightmare, a war on two fronts, was now a reality. His comment was a classic of banality: “To think that George (V of Britain) and Nicky (Tsar Nicholas II of Russia) should have played me false! If my grandmother (Queen Victoria) had been alive she would never have allowed it.”
The foreboding of what the war would mean to Europe was encapsulated in the remark made by Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the evening before to his friend the editor of the Westminster Gazette John Alfred Spender as they watched the lamps along Pall Mall being lit as the sun set: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
The drawing down of blinds
And so began the war H.G. Wells would characterise, more in hope that reality, as the “war to end all war.” The war which Wilfred Owen knew first hand to be one of almost unrelieved horror and which he wrote about so movingly. Perhaps his “Anthem for Doomed Youth” expressed it best:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
The unprecedented slaughter of the young men of Europe, and the destruction of so much else, began. As Owen put it in “The Show”:
On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,
Brown strings, towards strings of grey, with bristling spines,
All migrants from green fields, intent on mire.
Those that were grey, of more abundant spawns,
Ramped on the rest and ate them and were eaten.
The first few months of war, after the brutal advance of the German armies through Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine had been checked by the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force, became a time of intense suffering as the two forces faced each other across the “no-man's land” between their trenches.
The troops suffered cold and wet and the effects of being almost constantly under fire and gas attack.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men's extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh. - from Owen's “Mental Cases”
And then came that extraordinary time at Christmas 1914 when the troops defied their officers and met each other in no-man's land, exchanging gifts and singing Christmas carols together. Perhaps significantly, this strange happening was initiated from the German side, when some German soldiers brought a chocolate cake over to the British lines. But the respite was brief, and soon they were back to the brutal, base business of war, killing each other. As Owen expressed it in “Exposure”:
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow...
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
But nothing happens.
The old order ends and modernity arrives
The futility of the violence and killing was part of the reality that the men in the trenches faced as hour by hour they suffered the dreadful torments. How could men who had shared the singing of carols heralding the birth of the Prince of Peace, a football game in no-man's land, a chocolate cake, go back to killing each other?
'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now....' - from Owen's great poem “Strange Meeting”
This war brought the old order of kings and empires to an end and ushered in the modern era. Three empires died – the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian – leaving the world a deeply changed place where individualism and modernism coloured the culture. It also sowed the seeds of the next great conflagration which would sweep away even more illusions and finally destroy any pretence of innocence.
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.
Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.
The scribes on all the people shove
And brawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate. - “At a Calvary near the Ancre”