World War I was a bloody war. A bloody war, played out in muddy trenches, fought by men whose pride and patriotism trumped any murmurings of disquiet as to what they were all doing in the mud. One of the bloodiest of the many bloody exchanges was the Brusilov Offensive, a four month campaign fought on the Eastern Front through the long, hot summer of 1916; a campaign that the eminent historian Graydon Tunstall labelled the worst crisis of World War I, and a campaign where our Ludwig Wittgenstein picked up his medal.
That said, the Brusilov Offensive was only the worst crisis of World War I if you happened to be pitching your bayonet in the name of the German led Triple Alliance. If you were backing the colours of the Tripple Entente, the Brusilov Offensive was one of your greatest triumphs, albeit at a terrible cost. The loss of life was devastating.
The statistics of World War I make for grim reading, as you might expect for a global war that saw the mobilization of more than seventy million military personnel, about nine million of whom never returned home. Seven million civilians never even left home, but they too died. Hence bearded historians talking in heavy tones about it being one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
Yet unless you paid attention at school, or later became a bearded historian, the question: “What started World War I?” may, indeed, leave your lips a little dry. You know it was a terrible, global conflict but what actually started it?
First of all take a sip of your gin and relax. It’s not straightforward, and many historians are still sending each other sly emails, late at night, questioning each other’s suggestions about the exact cause of the war. That said, what you need to know is that Europe, at the turn of the 19th Century had the look of a conflict waiting to happen. It was a pressure cooker. It was an age when souped up Tsars and Emperors did deals, broke deals, signed accords and agreements. It was an age of back scratching and political jockeying. It was an age of both cock and bull. The bigger the better.
And get this, the King of England – George V, Germany’s big man – Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Russia’s top dog, Tsar Nicholas II, were all cousins.
Back at the beginning. Austria-Hungry, often referred to as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, dare you imagine it a slightly haughty lot, stirred things up by annexing Bosnia which it had previously been sat on. This got the wick of Serbia. Not a big deal you might well mutter. Wrong. Serbia was chums with Russia. “Don’t poke the bear” says the tea coaster, for good reason. Russia then, as now – somewhat disturbingly – found the Balkans a bit of an itch, and long had its hand in destabilising many a Balkan peace accord. The region, for good reason, became known as the ‘powder keg of Europe’.
The powder duly got torched in 1912 with the First Balkan War, and then torched again a year later in the Second Balkan War. They were all at each other’s throats, literally, but at least it was all contained. The rest of Europe watched from a far, as if flicking through the channels on Sky. Watching, but not really involved.
Let them scrap it out.
In June 1914, Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a man with a truly wonderful, wonderful moustache, had thought it a good idea to take in a state visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. This turned out to be a bad idea. A very bad idea. A group of disgruntled agitators, later to be known as assassins, had got together and thought it a good idea of their own to pop the Archduke, and his wife, hoping it would hurry the break off of the South Slav provinces. These provinces could then all be glued together to form Yugoslavia. Fine on paper.
The assassins, in a plan that appeared to have been spun together over a couple of beers, all lined up beside the road the Archduke was due to barrel down in his car. The Archduke duly whistled passed and a grenade was lobbed his way. Perhaps too early, or too late, or a little off line, but by the time the ping went pop the Archduke was down the road leaving those clutching the bunting to bear the brunt of the explosion. The hapless assassins scarpered. Later that afternoon, the Archduke was driving back to his hotel when his convoy took a wrong turn down a street, a street where one of the same assassins, Gavrilo Princip, happened to be having a fag. Not quite believing his luck, he threw away his cigarette, pulled out a gun, and shot both the Archduke and his wife.
The assassination precipitated the July Crisis, which was – as you might assume – a crisis, in July. The July crisis was a month of sticky diplomatic manoeuvrings across Europe. It resulted in Austria-Hungary serving Serbia with the July ultimatum which contained ten demands. Serbia agreed to nine of them, but for some reason refused to allow Austrian delegates into Serbia for the purpose of investigating Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.
And so, in a slightly heavy handed diplomatic turn, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia put through a telegram to Moscow and Moscow, ever eager to “have a bit” started to mobilise her army against Austria-Hungary, and a few days later, got her tanks lined up on Germany too. The Kaiser then asked his cousin, the Tsar, if he could stop mobilising his army. The Tsar flared his nostrils and refused. So Germany declared war on Russia. Germany then asked France to stay out of it, but France being French, and perhaps not trusting the Germans, didn’t really commit either way. A bit miffed, Germany took it out on Luxembourg, and then declared war on France. Great Britain, still Great back then, with a navy the envy of the world, then got involved. Why? Belgium.
Belgium was neutral. George V told his cousin the Kaiser, to leave Belgium alone. The Kaiser responded by declaring war on Belgium. Who does that? It’s Belgium. It’s flat. It’s like an old Aunt that sits quietly in the corner on a rocking chair perhaps good for a bit of chocolate and maybe, maybe, the occasional weekend visit. Rather than leave Belgium high and dry, Britain then declared war on Germany.
And so World War I began.
One wrong turn, one hot-headed Kaiser and one an epic failure of diplomacy, and over sixteen million people lost their life.
What a waste.