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The First World War
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In the first four days of August 1914, the world’s most powerful nations declared war on each other. They lined up in two opposing camps. On one side was Germany and Austria-Hungary, who were known as the Central Powers. On the other was Britain and France, together with their empires, and Russia. They were known as the Allies. In the course of the war, other nations would be drawn into the conflict, too. The Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers. Italy, Romania, Japan and China joined the Allies. So did the United States, despite the initial reluctance of a great many of its people. It was to be the first real world war - in that it involved countries from every inhabited continent - although most of the fighting took place on what became known as the Western and Eastern fronts, on either side of Germany.
As news of the outbreak of war spread, crowds began to gather in the hot summer sunshine, congregating in the great squares and parks of Europe’s principal cities. Far from being fearful or anxious, they were elated – like football fans anticipating a closely-fought game. Each side expected a war of great marches and heroic battles, quickly decided. The German emperor, the kaiser, told his troops they would be home before the leaves fell from the trees. The British were not so optimistic, although it was frequently claimed that the war would be over by Christmas. Only a few far-sighted politicians realized what was coming, including the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey.
Watching the dusk from his window on August 4, the day Britain declared war on Germany, Sir Edward sighed: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” His melancholy remark had a deep resonance, for the world would never be the same. Grey and his fellow citizens were living in a strong and prosperous country, with a vast empire. The war would provide a rude awakening to the grimier reality of the 20th century, completely undermining Britain’s position as the world’s most powerful nation.
Almost all the other participants in the war suffered a similar reversal of fortune, or worse. In France, half of all men aged between 20 and 35 were killed or badly wounded; its eminent position in the world would never recover. The Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed, with repercussions that can still be seen in the squabbling Balkan nations of today. The Germans ended the war on the brink of a communist revolution, and lost their own monarchy. The war swept away the Russian monarchy too, then brought the communist Bolsheviks to power. With them came 70 years of brutal, totalitarian oppression. Like many countries in Eastern Europe, the Russians have never really recovered from the First World War, and its awful consequences. Only the United States did well out of it. By 1919, it had become the richest, most powerful nation on Earth, and was set to dominate the 20th century.
Quite apart from its consequences, there is something uniquely haunting about the First World War. The Second World War was far worse in terms of its cost in human life: it claimed over four times as many victims. It was also fought with much greater brutality, and came with such horrors as the Holocaust and the mass destruction of cities by aerial bombardment. But it did end with the overthrow of two undoubtedly evil regimes – Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan – and a peace which lasted for the rest of the century. The First World War, for all its terrible cost, produced no positive results at all.
The city crowds that gathered that August had no idea what the next four years had in store. The dreadful waste of life – what British statesman Lloyd George would describe as “the ghastly butchery of vain and insane offensives” – was something hitherto unknown in modern warfare. But, worst of all, when the final shell had been fired, the final gas canister unleashed and the final submarine recalled to port, there was nothing to show for it except an awful air of unfinished business and a tally of 21 million dead. Novelist H.G. Wells called it “the war that will end war”, and the phrase had caught on. It was such a gut-wrenchingly horrible conflict, everyone hoped humanity would not be foolish enough to do it again. The Versailles peace treaty officially ended the war in 1919. One of the leading participants, French commander Marshal Foch, dismissed the proceedings as “a 20-year cease-fire”. He was exactly right. By the early 1920s, people had already begun to refer to “the war that will end war” as the First World War.
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