In June 1914 war between the so-called civilised powers of Europe seemed impossible. Two months later, the guns of August dispelled that notion and many others. The world, Malcolm Brown argues, has not been the same since.
There has ever since been a “surprised sadness that that had seemed so safe and secure was so brutally snatched away.” Reasons for this included that the Great War was the first global conflict in a hundred years – the last had ended with the imprisonment of Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena in 1815 and that in 1914 Europe was more culturally and commercially integrated that at any time in history – save the present. It also helped that the British King and German Kaiser were first cousins…
The Imperial War Museum Book of 1914 focuses largely on the regular British Army of 1914, the “Old Contemptibles” who were sacrificed while Lord Kitchener prepared a New Army, the volunteers and conscripts who fought the remainder of the war.
It also gives a better account than most other titles of that oft-overlooked portion of World War One, the manoeuvre phase of 1914. Better – but not entirely adequate. There is a brief account of the Battle of Mons, where the British and Germans first clashed on August 23 (war had been declared on August 14), followed by an account of the retreat from that Belgian industrial town to the Marne and then up again to the Aisne, where the British had an introduction to trench warfare.
The British Expeditionary Force then deployed west to oppose Germany`s last grasp at victory – a steady series of attempted envelopments that ended on the Channel Coast. The book ends with a description of the first Battle of Ypres (there would be four) and the Christmas Truce of that year, when Saxons and Brits emerged from their trenches to bury their dead, play soccer and exchange cigars for cigarettes and wine for beer.
Also covered in between is Winston Churchill`s folly for 1914 – Antwerp – and various “sideshows”: the seizure of various German colonies, including that of Tsingtao by the Japanese, for whom, as Brown mentions, the war really was over by Christmas.
What makes Brown`s books so readable (he has also published works on Verdun, the Somme, the Western Front in general and the year 1918), is the reliance on letters and other first person accounts now kept for posterity at the Imperial War Museum in London.
From this we can see the novelty of war did not last very long, as recorded in a letter by Major Herbert Trevor of 2 KOYLI (King`s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) in a letter to his sister on September 2 – when for the British the war was just ten days old: “War is a rotten game and none of us would be sorry if it was over … where the fun comes I don`t know.” Sadly, it had another four years, three months to run.
These days the Germans are mostly blamed for having started the war. This is the result of another “fraud” perpetrated on history by Austria. First, they convinced the world Mozart was Austrian, then that the Kaiser started the war then that Hitler was German. This is in jest, but the casus belli was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his beloved wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28.
The murder was in general the result of Austrian arrogance in the Balkans in the preceding years and in particular due to the driver getting lost in the picturesque city – arguably the worst example of bad navigation in history. Austria, where Franz Ferdinand was in dog-box for marrying below his class, then seized on this opportunity to deal with Serbia, whom they believed to be a bit too “uppity.”
Pan-Slavic sentiment then kicked in with the Tsar pledging Russian support for Serbia, which caused Germany to back Austria, which required France to help Russia – although, like Austria they were also spoiling for war, in their case a replay of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, in which she had lost territory to Germany. Britain, a friend of the Germans when Germany was an idea, not a country, had by 1904 formed an informal alliance with her enemy of 800 years, France. Even so, she came into the war as a guarantor of Belgian neutrality after Germany demanded free access to all of that country in order to invade France.
AND IT COULD HAPPEN AGAIN…
The Imperial War Museum Book of 1914 – The men who went to war
Sidgwick & Jackson