The Great War Anniversary

One hundred years ago today, at midnight Central European Time, the event that shaped the twentieth century came into being. Or at least the British Empire’s participation in it began.

Germany had invaded Belgium that morning so we were a bit late. (A squad of Germans had invaded Belgium the previous evening but had jumped the gun – so to speak – not getting the delaying telegram in time and were recalled. They were soon back though.)

Yet those were not the first shots. Hostilities had started seven days earlier on 28th July when Austro-Hungarian troops opened fire on Serbia in response to the true first shots – the ones fired by Gavrilo Princip and which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie but even those had their roots in the welter of national entanglements which plague the Balkans even yet.

Those entanglements were mirrored in the system of alliances that dictated that Germany had to attempt to defeat France first before swinging round to take on Russia and so necessitated a march through neutral Luxembourg and Belgium.

Ironies abounded. Without attacking Belgium, Germany might have avoided war with Britain and so the holding up of the German armies by the BEF at Mons and later the Allies at the battle of the Marne might not have succeeded and so gained Germany the victory in the west it desired. Russia managed to invade eastern Germany earlier than the Germans had anticipated and troops were hurriedly withdrawn fron the Western Front to face the threat which I believe was actually defeated at the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes before these reinforcements could get there.

The Great War is remembered for the bloody stalemate of the trenches yet in these first encounters when it was still a war of movement daily casualties were enormous – especially for the French – much higher than in most later battles; though the Somme has a grim reputation in Britain.

I heard a woman on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought this morning say she refused to call it the Great War “as there was nothing great about it.” Wrong meaning of great I’m afraid.

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