Flanders poppy among the potatoes

Flanders poppy among the potatoes

Over the next four years there will no doubt be much said and written about World War One. Having heard third hand about how my relatives were affected and thinking about what I have learnt, I offer you my thoughts about it. Overall some 10 million people lost their lives as a result of the first war to use industrialised technology to great effect and to involve countries from every continent (with the arguable exception of Antarctica). During those years from 1914 to 1918 there was also some significant social change in Britain whose effects were felt long after the end of hostilities. Although very much only part of the whole story, I shall be writing from a British perspective and concentrating on the Western and Home Fronts about some of the causes and consequences of World War I.

How did it all begin?

You could argue that the roots of the war go back hundreds of years to Roman times. That empire stretched as far North as Britain and Gaul (France) and had the river Rhine at its North-Eastern boundary. To the East lay the lands of the Germanic tribes and the fall of the Roman empire was in part due to the invasion from there. Since then the Rhine has seen invading armies cross it at various times over the centuries. For example, Napoleon went East to try to conquer Russia (and lost) in the early 19th century and later in 1869 Paris was besieged by a German army.

A treaty of 1839 guaranteed the independence of Belgium which was regarded as a buffer state between Germany and France. Both they, together with the United Kingdom and Russia, were signatories to that treaty.

When the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, it started a train of events which led to war. At first, the event was disregarded by most of the world. However, characterised as “Regicide” (constitutionally more serious than another murder) it became the causus belli for the Austrians and Germans. It would appear that the German Kaiser wanted Austria to have a short war with its Serbian province in order to bolster its prestige and to warn off the Russian Empire whose army Germany feared. In other words, Russia was Germany’s main target, Austria its proxy and the assassination a handy excuse. During this time Germany offered a “blank cheque” committing military backing to Austria. The Austrian Emperor eventually signed off on sending an ultimatum to the Serbs – an ultimatum that was “designed to be rejected”.

During this time the German Kaiser and Russian Tsar corresponded with each other – they were cousins, after all. (Incidentally, King George V of the UK was their cousin as well). Meanwhile, the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, got involved in discussions with the German, Russian and Austrian Ambassadors (who also were cousins) as well as with the French Ambassador. Britain wanted to avoid war and had hoped to stay out of the conflict. However, diplomacy got nowhere. Austria declared war on its Serbian province on 28th July. Meanwhile, the Russian army began mobilising on 29th July. Germany declared war on Russia on 1st August and demanded French neutrality. Germany attacked Luxembourg on 2nd August and declared war on France on 3rd August. On 4th August Germany declared war on Belgium. What began as a promise of support to Austria evolved into a war for Germany on two fronts.

The French Army was the largest at the time and had built a series of forts and other defences along her border with Germany. Because Belgium was neutral, there were no similar defences on the Franco-Belgian border. Thus it was logical for German forces to go through Belgium, with or without her permission. Bound by the 1839 treaty Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August.

Among the reasons for going to war were allegations of war crimes by the German army against Belgian civilians. While these we probably exaggerated in the press, there was some systematic brutality by the German forces – if not condoned by their officers, neither were they prevented.

“The only way to end a war quickly is to lose it”- George Orwell

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