Monday, July 28 will mark the 100th year since the outbreak of what has been known variously as The Great War, The Great European War, World War 1, The First World War and The war to end all wars. The conflict was all of these things except the last one. In fact, it set a precedent over the century for wars that may not otherwise have occurred.
A series of European events saw the severe testing of treaties among the Imperial powers—Germany, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Austria-Hungary, France and Great Britain—and the guarantees of mutual protection they offered. The assassination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife a month earlier set in motion a calling in of markers, the mobilization of huge armies and general rattling of sabres among the potential belligerents. By the end of July the point of no return had been reached. On 28 July Austria-Hungary fired the first shots in their preparation for invading Serbia. Russia mobilized in defence of Serbia, and Germany warned the Russians, hands off Hungary. France honoured its treaty with Russia and warned Germany to back off. Germany invaded France through neutral Belgium, which invoked Britain’s mutual aid treaty with Belgium, and by Aug. 1 the war was underway.
By the time it ended some four years, five months later, 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, were mobilized; of these more than nine million were killed.
The plan followed by Germany regarding France was similar to the one that led to France’s humiliating defeat in 1872. That version, modified by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, called for striking through Belgium into northern France. When Belgium refused passage of German troops through her territory, she was invaded and conquered in mere days. Schlieffen’s plan called for the northern army to move westward and then south, bypassing Paris and blocking the Channel ports against British interference. A central army from the east and a southern army would then envelope Paris from the south and effectively end the war.
Schlieffen’s dying words were: “Keep the west strong!” Unfortunately, the German high command, face with exhausted troops and overextended supply lines, opted to swing east above Paris, exposing their right flank to the French who took immediate advantage of the ill conceived move.
Later dubbed the First Battle of The Marne, the German southern advance was halted, and the war that most observers believed would be over by Christmas dragged on for another four years, literally destroying an entire generation.
Both armies dug in, eventually establishing the sinuous line of trenches known as the Western Front stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea, a line that changed only superficially until 1917, when the Americans entered the war. The relief offered by the American entry, coupled with Germany being literally bled to death saw their final campaign of 1918 defeated on all fronts, leading finally to their call for an armistice.
It was an armistice, not surrender, and Germany’s army marched home carrying their weapons. The war ended officially in 1919 when the treaty of Versailles set out the terms of Germany’s capitulation and the stifling war reparations that were to be paid to the allies, an ill conceived move that sowed the seed for the next great conflict twenty years down the road.
John G. McKay is an Amherst resident who has written numerous short novels on the history.