'Who shall return us our children': The Great War begins 100 years go this month

By Susan McCloud

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 13 2014 4:35 p.m. MDT

Silhouettes of British soldiers are projected onto a trench scene in the new "First World War Galleries" after major redevelopment works at the Imperial War Museum during a press preview event in London, Wednesday, July 16, 2014.

Matt Dunham, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Bosnia. This was the spark that set off political ambitions, fears and schemings throughout Europe.

In 1907, Britain signed a treaty with Russia, and Britain and France had already acted in consort to thwart the expansion of German power in Turkey. It had been a setback to Germany when Serbia was victorious over Turkey in the First Balkan War in 1912. Germany’s standing army had been increased in 1913 to 661,000; her leaders wanted an empire and a navy as strong as the British possessed. As Gen. Franz Conrad Graf von Hotzendorf, Austrian chief of staff, expressed it: “A European war is bound to come sooner or later, in which the issue will be one of struggle between Germandom and Slavdom” (see "The First World War: A Complete History" by Martin Gilbert).

Greed for territory and conquest was rife. As recorded in "The First World War: A Complete History," all nations seemed to feel “aggrieved, unsatisfied, endangered, or confident. … all rivalries and disputes combined to create and whip up the moods and opportunities that made war first thinkable — then possible — and finally desirable.”

Winston Churchill was a member of the British Parliament at the youthful age of 26, but he had experienced battle in India, the Sudan and the Boer War. His response to discussions about raising an army to fight is powerfully insightful:

“I have frequently been astonished to hear with what composure and how glibly Members, and even Ministers, talk of a European war.” He pointed out that wars in the past had been fought “by small regular armies of professional soldiers.” But a current war “could only end ‘in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.’ ” (see Gilbert's "The First World War: A Complete History,")

On Aug. 4, 1914 — 100 years ago — Britain declared war on Germany. Austria-Hungry, Serbia, Germany, Russia, France and Belgium were already in the fray. Almost at once, 2.5 million men joined the British army. In the chaos of fear and sudden destruction, a million Belgians crossed the border into Holland, despite the fearsome wall of wire erected by the Germans — a barrier 3 meters high, empowered with 2,000 volts of electricity and running for 200 kilometers through villages, fields and orchards, and even across rivers. But the desperate effort had to be made, though some 3,000 people were killed in the attempt (see "World War I, a Very Peculiar History," by Jim Pipe).

Trenches were built on both sides, eventually running to 25,000 miles. The German version was far superior to the English, lined with concrete, deeper, and with more amenities provided. The Allied soldiers were consigned to little more than narrow pits, where they were forced to walk with their heads bowed in order to avoid enemy fire. When the soldiers were given steel helmets in 1916, head wounds were reduced by a remarkable 75 percent.

Battle losses were staggering from the very beginning: 1,855,369 in the Hundred Day Offensive; 1,539,715 in the Spring Offensive; 1,219,201 in the Battle of the Somme.

Thirty different poisonous gasses were used in the Great War, with a total of 1.2 million men gassed on both sides. There was war on every ocean and almost every continent; 10 million to 15 million men died, and $30 billion was eaten up by the bitter cost of war, according to facts.randomhistory.com. Sir Edward Grey, British foreign secretary, made the following statement on Aug. 3 as war was being declared: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” (see "World War I: A Very Peculiar History").

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere