Some called it WW1 others World War One, at the time it was said to be the war to end all wars, and now exactly 100 years later we are commemorating its centenary. On 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany as the rest of the global conflict began to take shape, the world had decided that the time was right to unleash man made death and destruction onto the planet, on a scale that had not been seen before. So just what started this war? Well it was one simple act, the assassination at Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28th June 1914. On 28th July Austria would declare war on Serbia, then other counties would follow suit declaring war on each other, some years after the war had actually started.
During the conflict many now famous names would enter the common vocabulary, like the famous battlefields of the Somme, Mons, Ypres, and Gallipoli. The allies retreat from Gallipoli even warranting a depiction in a cathedrals stained glass window. Ships like the Lusitania would be sunk by a German U-boat to erupt in condemnation and disgust from nations around the world, with the name of the ship being forever associated with the horror of how innocent civilians can so easily be caught up in such a worldwide conflict.
Many people would become heroes in a war that would see the development of several new weapons such as the tank, this was used en masse in the Battles of the Somme, and won a British victory at Cambral. It was not only a mans war either women would also play their part in their homeland or at the battlefront. Edith Cavell, a British nurse was shot on 12th October 1915 by the German army for helping allied soldiers to escape occupied Belgium. At the time her execution was condemned worldwide, such was the disgust at the Bosh/Hun, two terms of slang used to describe the German army. She is still remembered to this very day with commemorate ceremonies in England and Belgium.
Although photography was in its infancy in those days it had developed whereby it could produce a decent result, and of the many images taken during the war there is probably one subject that stands out above all others, that being the images of the trenches. The allied trenches were actually built by 140,000 Chinese labourers recruited as manual labour by the British and French governments. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict would dig themselves in to face one another day after day, in a stalemate situation, their only real protection being that they were below ground level, with the water, mud, rats and disease. That was of course until the poisonous gas, shells, or sniper fire tried to kill them.
The war went on and on, the soldiers would be ordered to go over the top and charge the enemy hoping to take a small area of ground, all while being confronted with a hail of bullets and other artillery. Just two enemy machine guns firing their rounds in a arced configuration could take down so many soldiers it seemed like lambs to the slaughter, but these were not lambs, they were human beings, brave human beings who ran to an untimely death. Lives would be lost pointlessly, but any action seemed better than this stalemate and no action at all, or so it would appear was the intellectual assessment of the generals.
After 4 years of fighting with something like 8.5 million being killed, and 21 million wounded, sense would finally prevail and the war would start to end with the collapse of the German army on 15th July 1918. Various nations started to make peace with each other, then on 11th November 1918 Germany signed the armistice with the allies, finally the insanity of the First World War was over, however, much of Europe was now just a barren wasteland.
Apart from the utter waste, destruction and death, caused by the governments of the day, the horror for many would not end with the culmination of the war. The British government in particular during and after the war would not recognize a medical condition known as shell shock, thus some soldiers with this condition were actually shot as deserters when their mental capacity to fight had left them as shaking wrecks. Even in a much later war the condition of Gulf War Syndrome would again be rejected as an illness, until the government finally admitted to its existence.
Post-war, on 4th January 1919 there was a peace conference in Paris, then on 21st June the German navy surrendered its battleships, which it then scuttled at Scapa Flow, this was then followed by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was basically given the choice of signing the treaty which imposed many limitations on what it could or could not do, with various areas of German land being given to the victors, or they would be invaded by the allies. With an armed force of only around 100,000, they had no option but to sign the treaty which angered man German people. Ironically, there was one soldier in particular who always held a lifelong grudge towards this treaty, and he would one day rise to hold the power whereby he would be the instigator of the Second World War, one Adolf Hitler.
Lest We Forget …