Tomorrow morning, at exactly 11 o’clock, Britain will fall silent. Young and old, black and white, rich and poor, millions of people will stand united to remember the fallen.
Known originally as Armistice Day, Britain’s first day of remembrance was held on November 11, 1919, marking the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Today, as Remembrance Sunday, it remains one of the few truly sacred moments in our national calendar.
But what was it all about, that first Great War? Why did it happen? And how did more than five million young men from Britain and Ireland find themselves on the beaches of Gallipoli, in the deserts of Mesopotamia, in the hills of Palestine and, above all, in the mud of the Western Front?
At the time, ordinary soldiers found the whole thing utterly baffling. ‘What devil has brought this war upon us?’ they would mutter. ‘What is all this about, God help us?’
And even now, more than 100 years after the guns fell silent, historians still argue about the underlying causes.
Imperial greed? Nationalist bloodlust? Or simply a saga of accidents and misunderstandings?
Today, with the planet so febrile, understanding the causes of World War I has never been so important. As in the years before 1914, we live in an age of feverish uncertainty. The certainties of the Cold War, terrifying as they were, are gone.
With China challenging U.S. power in the Pacific, and Vladimir Putin and his clients rattling their sabres in Belarus and eastern Ukraine, who would bet against provocation escalating into war one of these days?
In the past few weeks, there have been reminders of the chilling fragility of the peace we take for granted.
China has reasserted its claim to the U.S.-backed island of Taiwan, while the U.S. State Department has explicitly warned that Russian troops are massing on the border of Ukraine. An exercise, or the prelude to invasion? Who knows?
The footage that emerged yesterday of Russian and Belarusian paratroopers taking part in unnannounced military drills close to the Polish border — where thousands of migrants are gathering — is certainly little cause for comfort.
Has the global situation ever been so unpredictable?
And isn’t it possible that the resulting adventurism, hubris, fear and distrust could build into precisely the same kind of cataclysm that tore the world apart in 1914?
Here, then, is a lesson in how arrogance, weakness, insecurity and the psychological flaws of individual leaders can lead to disaster — and many millions of deaths.
First, let us get back to what history is really all about — not vast, impersonal forces, but human beings. With a grim irony, given the agonies World War I brought to millions of mothers, the story begins with that most fundamental human instinct — a mother’s love for her child.
Marija Princip, a farmer’s wife from the tiny village of Obljaj, in the wooded mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina, had great hopes for her son Gavrilo. The boy was bright and bookish, and when he was 13, Marija persuaded her husband to send him to the capital, Sarajevo. There, she thought, he could go to school and become a great man.
In August 1907, Gavrilo Princip’s train pulled into Sarajevo, a bustling city of mosques and bazaars that were overwhelming to a country boy.
At first, he knuckled down to his studies but, lonely, awkward and short of money, he began to fall behind. He started to miss lessons and when, aged 17, he skipped a crucial exam, that was that.
Gavrilo had found a new and incendiary passion — politics. He sought somebody to blame for his misfortunes and, like other youngsters from his Bosnian Serb background, he focused on the Austrians who had ruled Bosnia since 1878.
Over the years, Gavrilo’s hatred festered. He moved to Belgrade, the capital of the neighbouring Kingdom of Serbia, and became involved with nationalist terrorist groups.
Then, in the spring of 1914, one of his friends showed him a newspaper cutting. In June the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would be visiting Sarajevo. Gavrilo saw the potential for a terrorist spectacle that would shock the world.
So it was that on June 28, 1914, the Archduke and his assassin were brought together in one of the most fateful moments in human history.
When Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie drove into Sarajevo, one of Gavrilo’s comrades threw a bomb at their car, but it missed by inches. Shaken but determined to continue, the couple went on to a reception. Then, in a change of plans, they decided to visit the wounded in hospital. En route, their driver made a wrong turn and put the car into reverse. The engine cut out.
A British ammunition column during World War I, circa 1915
For a moment, the vehicle was motionless, as if frozen in time. Then a man stepped forward from the pavement — thin, frail and shabbily dressed, with an unblinking stare. It was Gavrilo Princip. Scarcely believing his luck, he took out his pistol and fired two shots. Sophie was hit in the abdomen; Franz Ferdinand in the neck. As his wife slumped at his side, the Archduke whispered: ‘Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Stay alive for our children!’
News of the murders flashed around the world, setting in train the events that led to war.
After rounding up Princip and his friends, the Austrians decided on military reprisals. Not unreasonably, their generals held Serbia responsible.
For years Serbia’s politicians had whipped up anti-Austrian sentiment, and Princip’s gang had been encouraged and armed by Serbian intelligence agents.
Now, it was time to teach Serbia a lesson.
There was, however, an obvious problem.
If Austria declared war, Serbia would undoubtedly appeal to its most powerful protector, the eastern colossus of tsarist Russia.
So, a week after Franz Ferdinand’s murder, on Sunday, July 5, two men had lunch in Berlin. One was the Austrian ambassador. The other was perhaps the most powerful man in Europe: Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany.
Later, Allied propaganda painted Wilhelm as a blood-crazed monster. In fact, he was simply bumptious and insecure.
At Wilhelm’s birth almost 60 years earlier, the doctors had accidentally torn the nerves in his neck. His left arm was crippled and useless, and as a child he suffered from agonising earaches.
His mother Vicky — a daughter of Queen Victoria — treated him like a freak, and he never got over it. Even after becoming Kaiser in 1888, he remained hot-tempered, needy and desperate for attention.
On the international stage, Wilhelm cut a ridiculous figure, forever fuming at his British relatives. ‘The English,’ he said bitterly, ‘will be brought low some day!’
What was more, he and his generals felt threatened by their neighbours: France to the west, Russia to the east. They were convinced that Russia, industrialising at a breakneck rate, was bound to challenge them at some point.
Indeed, some German generals thought they should fight Russia now, before it became too strong. ‘War the sooner the better,’ the army chief, Helmuth von Moltke, told the Kaiser in 1912.
So when the ambassador confided Austria’s plans to strike against Serbia, Wilhelm offered them a ‘blank cheque’, promising unconditional support.
Did he seriously think this meant war? Almost certainly not. Wilhelm was never entirely convinced that the Austrians would follow through, and certainly never thought the Russians would risk a global conflagration to resist them.
In fact, the very next day he left for his summer yachting holiday —hardly the behaviour of a would-be warmonger.
But in the next few weeks the crisis spiralled out of control, driven not just by the alliances of European powers but by the flaws and anxieties of some very powerful men.
In other circumstances, Russia’s Nicholas II might have hesitated to pour petrol on the flames. But now his own family background came into play.
Nicholas’s father, the domineering Alexander III, had taught him to rule as an autocrat. That had provoked years of domestic unrest, including an abortive revolution in 1905.
As a result, Nicholas’s advisers were desperate to win popularity at home by asserting Russian strength abroad.
Then there were the French, seething with resentment after their defeat by Wilhelm’s grandfather in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Terrified of falling farther behind, they urged the Russians to stand up to German pressure.
Polish Military Police soldiers guard the fence during ‘Operation Strong Support’ near the Polish-Belarusian border crossing in Kuznica, eastern Poland, 09 November 2021
Today we often assume these men had no idea what was coming. But that’s simply not true. Their letters and diaries show they knew that in an age of aeroplanes, battleships, barbed wire and machine guns, millions of people might be killed.
So why did they do it? The basic truth is that they were frightened. Afraid of looking weak, afraid of being left behind by their rivals, none wanted to back down.
Instead, they gambled on standing firm, staking the lives of millions on a bet they might easily lose.
So, one by one, they tumbled over the brink. Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia mobilised its troops against Austria, then Germany declared war on Russia and France.
But what about Britain? Few ordinary Britons had given Franz Ferdinand’s murder much thought — including the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith.
A clever, worldly Yorkshireman, he had been running the country since 1908 and now, in his 60s, was desperately weary.
He also had other things on his mind. He was completely besotted with his daughter’s best friend, Venetia Stanley, who was in her early 20s. He wrote her hundreds of love letters, often several times a day.
Both sides, he told her, were as bad as each other. The Serbs deserved a ‘thorough thrashing’, but the Austrians were ‘quite the stupidest people in Europe’.
If war broke out, it might build into a ‘real Armageddon’. But ‘there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators’. His Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had other ideas.
For years he had worked to bind Britain into close alliance with France, and he was determined to honour it.
Grey lived under a deepening shadow. His wife had died young and his brother had been killed by a lion in Africa. Now he was beginning to lose his eyesight — a cruel affliction for a passionate birdwatcher.
Brooding, lonely and depressive, he became convinced that Britain must fight. If we stayed out, he thought, the Germans would win, France would be finished and we would be friendless on the world stage.
Was he right? Some historians think he was. Sceptics, however, argue that Britain’s youth paid a heavy price for Grey’s loneliness and pessimism.
Yet on the first weekend of August 1914, as Germany and France headed for war, Britain’s destiny remained uncertain. But now came the decisive twist.
To deal with a war on two fronts, the Germans had concocted a plan to knock out the French first, striking through neutral little Belgium.
The Kaiser’s generals knew Britain was pledged to guarantee Belgium’s independence. So that Sunday night, August 2, 1914, they took a catastrophic gamble, perhaps the worst mistake of World War I.
Hoping to bully the Belgians into agreement — and thereby avoid British reprisals — they issued an ultimatum, demanding free passage. The Belgians, a proud people, said no.
Two days later, on August 4, the German army crashed across the Belgian border.
At midday, King Albert asked Britain for help. Two hours later, our government delivered an ultimatum to the Kaiser. If he failed to reply by 11 that evening, it would mean war. Darkness fell.
In his office overlooking St James’s Park, Sir Edward Grey stood with a friend, watching the men light the lamps in the street below.
‘The lamps are going out all over Europe,’ he said quietly. ‘We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’
At 11pm, the chimes of Big Ben echoed through the open windows, followed by the sound of crowds singing God Save The King. There had been no reply from Berlin. A few moments later, a signal flashed from the Admiralty to Britain’s fleet across the world. It read simply: ‘Commence Hostilities At Once Against Germany.’
And so began the Great War. Not by design, but through a combination of accidents, misadventures and miscalculations, born of the insecurities of a handful of individuals, from a disaffected teenage dropout to the master of imperial Germany.
Some 886,000 British and colonial servicemen and women lost their lives — leaving almost a million families scarred by grief and loss.
Was it worth it? The debate will never be settled, but the lessons are surely clear. Today, more than ever, the Western world needs clear, decisive, unambiguous leadership.
Impulsive posturing and naive adventurism are just as dangerous as spineless appeasement and vague good intentions.
And in the face of mounting provocation from Russia and China, our leaders need to remain calm and think clearly. They need to be firm, but not aggressive — and above all to keep talking.
Tomorrow, though, what matters is to remember the fallen, not just in World War I but in all Britain’s wars ever since.
There are more than 80,000 war memorials in every corner of the UK, from the solemn grandeur of the Cenotaph to the tiniest country village.
Behind every name is a once living, breathing human being, with hopes and dreams of their own, who gave their life to defend this country. And tomorrow, as the clocks strike 11 and The Last Post sounds, we should remember them.
Adventures In Time: The First World War, by Dominic Sandbrook, is published by Particular Books at £14.99. ©Dominic Sandbrook 2021. To order a copy for £13.49, go tomailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 28/11/2021.