The start of the Great War

The Great War (World War I) was the biggest and nastiest war in recorded European history. In so many ways society would never be the same.

But how did all this devastation come to pass? What was the road to this bitter destination?

Times, they are a-changing

In many ways, the story begins with the American Civil War. Why? Because it was a first of what can be called a modern war, presenting a long list of firsts in war.

European eyes were very interested in how the war went, and the Prussians were taking notes. Less than ten years later they would have a war with France (the Franco-Prussian war) and, using what they learned, would defeat the French in 6 months.

But in fact, European wars usually did not last long. In the 100 years before the first world war, almost all wars were less than a year. Many lasted for only a few months.

But this didn't comfort the French. They wanted a rematch with Prussia, which would later become Germany.

Brother, can you spare me a thousand miles of track?

This brings us to Russia and their troubles. Recent events proved to Russia that they needed serious modernizing. In particular, they needed a serious bulk-up of their railroad system.

Part of their concern was their next-door neighbor, Germany. Germany had recently been unified and was bent on establishing an empire for themselves. This made Russia uneasy.

Russia needed a friend.

A friend in need, C.M. Coolidge

The needed friend was France. It was the perfect match.

The two nations formed an alliance.

Is everyone feeling the love?

Not really.

Now Germany finds itself between two allies. If war were to break out, this is not the place to be.

Now it's Germany with a problem. Whatever would they do?

We have a plan

The Germans developed a plan in case of war with its neighbors. Called the Schlieffen Plan, after its original author, it counted on Germany's excellent rail system and Russia's poor one.

  1. Germany will mobilize its soldiers quickly, faster than either opponent.

  2. German soldiers would quickly move through neutral Belgium to avoid heavy French defenses.

  3. Defeat France quickly.

  4. Move the soldiers across Europe to fight Russia before Russia could get going in strength.

The plan was as clever as it was desperate. But remember, Russia was getting its rail system bulked up; upgrades being due for competition by 1918.

Germany's time was running out on the plan.

Not playing nice

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, another couple of neighbors weren't sending each other good vibrations either.


Austria-Hungry was a large, powerful kingdom made up of different peoples of different identities. Many of these groups did not get along so well.

The kingdom in 1914 was presided over by Emperor Franz Joseph I with his nephew Archduke Franz Ferdinand next to the throne. The two men were very opposite and actually did not get along. The emperor was an old-school, iron-fisted monarch. On the other hand, the archduke believed in more local freedom and wanted to see the nation become something of a “United States of Austria.”


To the south of Austria-Hungry was the small but proud kingdom of Serbia.

Serbia had recently become a sovereign nation and was looking to establish itself in the region. Some wanted Serbia to enlarge its borders into a larger, greater, Serbia. These plans involved bringing in ethnic Serbs in parts of what was the Austria-Hungry empire.

Among these were a group of terrorists called the Black Hand.

It all hits the fan

So it came to pass on June 28, 1914, the archduke and his wife traveled to the town of Sarajevo. The reason was the opening of a new museum, also so he could inspect the soldiers there. But, seven members of the Black Hand had other ideas. They sought to kill him.

The archduke, wife and others were to arrive by train and then attend a lunch buffet with the city's mayor and other VIPs. The Black Hand gang was also positioned along his route. At first, the assassination plot did not begin well. The first man lost his nerve and didn't do anything. The second launched his bomb at the car with the archduke in it. The driver, seeing the bomber, speeds up the car to get out of the way. The bomb explodes and injures some onlookers.

The bomber is arrested, and most of the rest of the gang fled. After seeing that the injured people are not fatally hurt, the archduke orders the cars to continue to the buffet. Meanwhile, the gang leader, Gavrilo Princip, goes to a deli for a sandwich, thinking the whole business was a flop.

Then fate took a hand.

Archduke Ferdinand ordered a change in plans, he wants to go to the hospital to see those injured in the bombing. But nobody told the driver so, en route, the driver takes a wrong turn. When he is corrected, he tries to turn the car around but the car gears jam and the engine stalls.

And all this happens right in front of Mr. Princip.

Seizing a golden moment, he rushes to the car, produces a pistol and shoots the archduke and wife. They would be dead by nightfall.

The reaction by emperor Franz Joseph was intense. Serbia is to blame! How dare they do this! They must pay! (Actually, he was rather relieved that his nephew was not going to be the next king, but that is neither here nor there.) Problem was, Serbia had a big, protective guard dog called Russia that was willing to come to the rescue in time of war.

So the emperor contacts the king of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm, to see if Germany will back him up. Seeing that a war with Russia is better now rather than later, he agrees. Now the events start happening fast:

1914 magazine cartoon showing a defiant Belgium telling Germany they can't come through.

The year 1914 ushered in the Great War and the world would never be the same. It began in an age of Victorian optimism.

Four years and 20 million lost lives later, everything was different. As Gertrude Stein called that generation, they were the "lost generation." And perhaps, this is much a tragedy as the lives lost on the field of battle.

Photo gallery of the Great War

Here are some photos with only a brief explanation.

Mud was a common reality for life in the trenches.

Soldiers in the trenches, ready to go “over the top.”

Once out of the trenches, soldiers had to make a mad charge towards the enemy trenches and their machine gun fire.

The “no man's land” between the trenches.

A pile of artillery shells. Artillery was used heavily to try and break the enemy trenches. Sometimes shelling would go nonstop for days.

Religious services for soldiers, lest we forget that these men were real people.

Great Music

There are many songs, written during the war and afterwards, that says so much about the war. I'll choose some of the lesser-known ones.

Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser

British song celebrating Belgium's resistance to the Germans.

The Rose of No Man's land

The name implies the song is about a flower between the trenches. It is a touching tribute to the Red Cross nurses who helped badly wounding soldiers at the front.

The Green Fields of France

Written in 1976, this song is post-great war. In it, the singer talks to the gravestone of a fictitious solder name Wily McBride killed in 1916. This moving song asks questions about the departed soldier (did you have a girlfriend, family, etc.) as well as pointed questions about those who died in the war and the wars that came after.

Great Movies

All Quiet on the Western Front

A classic story, originally as a book (an excellent read) and later as a movie, one version in 1930 and the other 1979. The story is about a German youth named Baumer who begins the story being excited, along with his classmates, to join the army and be a part of the glorious/patriotic war going on. Once there, they learn about the realities of life in the trenches and are forever changed. Very good depiction of life for the ordinary German soldier.

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