Charlie Riedel, Associated Press
NIEUWKERKE, Belgium — In a neatly clipped corner of the Westhof Farm Cemetery, an Australian family huddled around the grave of Pvt. Andrew Bayne. One century after the start of World War I, the family found closure in homage to a forebear who had traveled half the world to meet his death, his stomach ripped open by an exploding shell, in the horrors of Flanders Fields.
Bayne left his wife, Katie, with four young children in Brisbane and a prescient letter of regret: "What a dammed fool I was to ever have enlisted."
Bayne's remains lie alongside other Commonwealth victims and a handful of German dead, the rows of pristine white tombstones stretching over rich, undulating pastures. Belgium and France are still scarred by over 1,000 graveyards, countless bomb craters, rusting gas shells, bunkers and trenches that tore apart the Western Front for four years.
The front line of death and destruction burned through the Alps, Central Europe, the Balkans and Russia, spilling into present-day Turkey and reaching beyond to the Middle East and as far as China. It claimed some 14 million lives — 5 million civilians and 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen from 28 countries, from India to South Africa to the United States. The 1914-18 conflict was so unprecedented in its scope and savagery that it became known simply as "The Great War." At least 7 million troops were left permanently disabled and families across the globe, much like Bayne's, were wrecked.
Despite the vows of "never again" across a shell-shocked world, the outcome of the conflict only sowed the bitter seeds that led to World War II and more slaughter. And the nationalist tensions that set off the killing never really died, most recently resurfacing in Ukraine and Russia.
For Kaylene Biggs, misty-eyed after finally facing the grave of her great-grandfather in the small cemetery, the war's far-reaching legacy makes remembrance all the more important. "It isn't until you do visit the battlefields that you realize the huge amount of loss and sacrifice."
"Now, it seems so peaceful," she said amid the twitter of birds and the faraway galloping of a horse.
The early summer of 1914 seemed just as tranquil to most Europeans. By that time, the Bayne family had already been in Australia for two years, hoping to build a richer life after toiling for meager rewards on a Scottish farm.
Little did they know that Europe would not let them go so easily.
The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires had often clashed over borders in the restive Balkans, but somehow diplomats had muddled through without plunging the world into war. Little prepared Europe for June 28, 1914, when a gunshot from Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
So shocking was the murder, so constricting its consequences, that no diplomacy could stop the slow wheels of intricate alliances and oblique agreements that pulled the continent into full war by Aug. 4.
Adding to the combustible mix was the perception among several great powers that Germany was bent on military expansion to boost its standing as second to none in Europe. An arms race had been building for several years. In Berlin, there was an almost claustrophobic feeling of encirclement.
"You get something in 1914 like a perfect storm," said historian Margaret MacMillan, of Oxford University. "So in those five weeks, Europe instead of pulling back from the brink, puts itself toward the brink. And the results are catastrophic. And you look at it, and you think, 'You don't have to be doing this.'"
When the pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place that August, the Entente Powers including Britain, France and Russia faced the Central Powers of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.
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