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").
Amid this terrible darkness, one might ask: What of the United States? We shipped 75 million tons of supplies to France, which included 70,000 horses or mules, 50,000 trucks, 27,000 freight cars and 1,800 locomotives, according to "World War I, a Very Peculiar History."
On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson declared the United States at war. Approximately 21,000 Utahns fought in World War I. Of those, 665 died, 864 were wounded, and many women, including 80 regular nurses, served as ambulance drivers, clerical workers and canteen workers, as well as nurses, according to historytogo.utah.gov.
What difference did these American soldiers make? Vera Brittain, Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, writer and reformer, lost both her fiancé and her beloved older brother to the war. She left a description in "A Testament of Youth" that penetrates to the core of circumstance and feeling:
“ I wondered, watching them move with such rhythm, such dignity, such serene consciousness of self-respect. I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the War, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine! There seemed to be hundreds of them, and in the fearless swagger of their proud strength they looked a formidable bulwark against the peril looming from Amiens.
“ an uncontrollable emotion seized me — and a mist swam over the confident Americans going to the front. The coming of relief made me realize all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.”
The great poet and storyteller Rudyard Kipling had only one son, John, who was but 18 years old and who died at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 — and Rudyard Kipling was haunted for the rest of his life because his boy’s body was never found. The power of his anguished words is a fitting tribute to the youthful, vital lives that were desecrated and wasted — and a fitting question for us today to ponder as we regard the unparalleled history of those times. It is quoted here from Gilbert's "The First World War: A Complete History."
That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes — to be cindered by fires –
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation.
But who shall return us our children?
Susan Evans McCloud is author of more than 40 books and has published screenplays, a book of poetry and lyrics, including two songs in the LDS hymnbook. She has six children. She blogs at susanevansmccloud.blogspot.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org