The Great War began on 28 July 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, but Britain joined the war on 4 August, 100 years ago today, when German troops invaded neutral Belgium. The war drew in all the world’s great economic powers, and by the end of it 4 major imperial powers -the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires – had ceased to exist. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, fought with technological savagery including chlorine and mustard gas, and amid the horrific conditions in the trenches. More than 9 million troops were killed, and some 10 million civilians. Some 21 million soldiers were wounded. In Britain 41,000 men had one or more limbs amputated. In France so many had mangled faces that they formed a National Union of Disfigured Men. The toll was particularly heavy among the young. Of every 20 British men between 18 and 32 in 1914, 3 were killed and 6 wounded.
Tjhe real cause of the war was the rise of German militarism and the determination of Germany under its unhinged king, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to challenge British hegemony. Both sides expected a quick victory, to be back home by Xmas. But the war escalated, and by 1916 had ground down to the awful tactical stalemate of trench warfare. The battle of the Somme continued for 5 months, but on the first day alone, 1st July 1916, in a massive offensive against the German lines the British Army endured the bloodiest day in its history, suffering 57,000 casualties including 19,000 dead on that single day alone. The last large-scale British offensive, at Passchendaele, cost a further 300,000 casualties.
What finally brought the war to an end were several factors. One was the British naval blockade of Germany. Another was the armed convoy system which became extremely effective in reducing the German U-boat threat. A third decisive issue was the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania which finally brought the US into the war. This then induced the German High Command, knowing they could not win a protracted war against the combined allied forces, to plan for a final desperate offensive on the Western front. This repeated the disastrous tactics which the allies had made earlier, and equally proved enormously costly, leading inexorably to the final German surrender.
This was an utterly terrible war with colossal bravery, endurance and sacrifice. But it led to the punitive reparations imposed on Germany at the Treaty Of Versailles, and thus helped to sow the seeds for the rise of Nazism amid the global Great Depression in the early 1930s. Perhaps the spirit of bewildered despair at the horror of it all was best captured on a tombstone of one of the fallen at Gallipoli: ‘what harm did he do Thee, O Lord?’