By Hamida Ghafour
No one, it seems, was expecting a massive war that, by the end of the year, would kill or wound five million. In the winter of 1914, Britain was preoccupied with the possibility of civil war over home rule in Ireland. Kaiser Wilhem of Germany wanted to boost his naval power but wasn’t keen on fighting. Russian Tsar Nicholas II was celebrating three centuries of his dynasty. Austria-Hungary was concerned about its restive ethnic Serb subjects. But as Hamida Ghafour writes in her panoramic new ebook, The Winter Before the War, decisions made by those rulers and others meant that only a fuse was needed to bring on the First World War. Ghafour, who writes on foreign affairs for the Toronto Star, takes a fascinating and intimate look at the major players — including Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife — and recreates a time not unlike ours. It was an era of globalization, technological breakthroughs and faith in progress, but with simmering hostilities and military expansion in the shadows.
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The Winter Before the War
“The first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all
other calamities sprang.”
Historian Fritz Stern’s famous dictum about the First World War, which took 16 million lives and left 20 million wounded, is inarguable. Four ancient monarchies — the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian — collapsed. The war ushered in the Russian Revolution and unleashed the forces of Communism, fascism and Nazism. The Middle East has been in turmoil ever since its borders were redrawn by the war’s victors, Britain and France, which carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire among themselves.
The Great War, which began almost 100 years ago on July 28, 1914, led to the emergence of the United States as a world power. For Canada, the tragedy — an estimated 68,000 from this country lost their lives, nearly 1 per cent of the population — marked a transition from mere dominion of the British Empire to mature nation. While the horrors of trench warfare have slipped from living memory — John Babcock, the last known veteran from this country, died in 2010 at the age of 109 — the names of the battlefields where Canadians fought live on in our collective memory. The Somme. Vimy Ridge. Passchendaele. Yet before British poet and soldier Wilfred Owen’s “demented choirs of wailing shells” and “monstrous anger of the guns,” before Flanders’ poppy fields came to symbolize the grief of a lost generation, there was a world confidently embracing modernity.
It was an era of globalization, free trade, the spread of information through new technologies and faith in science and progress. People all over the world were demanding democracy and better rights for workers. It was a world very much like our own. Historians disagree on what caused the war and who was ultimately responsible. The trigger was the June 28, 1914, assassination
in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Duchess Sophie, by Gavrilo Princip, a fanatical young Bosnian Serb nationalist. No one could have guessed that by the end of the year five million people would be dead or wounded, and Europe’s fields, farms and cities would be in flames. ‘
From January to March, Britain was preoccupied with the possibility of civil war over home rule in Ireland. In Germany, the bombastic Kaiser Wilhelm II did not want a war. Russia’s tsar,
Nicholas II, had celebrated the 300th anniversary of his dynasty the year before. Weakening Austria-Hungary was long past its heyday and anxious about its ethnic Serb subjects in the province
of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who were angry about imperial rule. As Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan observed in an interview for this ebook, there was no sense of alarm that war was
going to break out. “It was a relatively peaceful period if you look at those months,” says MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.
The small clique of European men who ran the world had no idea the decisions they had made over the course of many years would lead them to believe they had no option but to fight. The British and Germans had long been engaged in a naval arms race. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was itching to fight with the country of Serbia to tamp down the nationalist aspirations of its own
ethnic Serbs. Russia was rapidly rearming in order to assert its status as a world power.
In other words, eminent military historian Sir Hew Strachan said in an interview, “everyone was playing a high-risk game,” and willing to fight, but no one imagined the scale of war that actually
came about. All that was needed was a fuse, and that fuse, a quiet, 19-year-old Bosnian peasant, was studying for his exams at his parents’ farm.