The outbreak of the Great War: 100 years on

A century ago, few had any inkling of the conflagration that was about to engulf Europe

by Elizabeth Day

The Observer

On New Year’s Day 1914, a respected weekly literary publication carried a long article penned by an author referred to only as A Rifleman. Entitled “Letters on War” and published in The New Age, an influential radical magazine in Britain, the three-page piece argued forcefully in favor of military conflict.

Success in war, argued the writer, “carries with it the potentiality of the highest form of economic development . . . [and] the highest degree of physical and moral development.” The armed strength of nations was, the article stated, “the highest expression of that physical force which is the basis of all our moral codes.”

Seven months after the article was published, the first world war erupted. It was not, as A Rifleman had hoped, an opportunity for physical and moral development but a conflict of unparalleled destruction. By the time the armistice was signed near the end of 1918, 10 million men had lost their lives on the battlefield, with another 20 million wounded. H.G. Wells called it “the war to end war” — a grim optimism that was to prove depressingly unfounded.

This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War in July 1914. In a year that will be punctuated by sober reflection and a series of commemorative occasions, it is tempting to assume a certain inevitability to events, especially when looking at them through the prism of hindsight.

But did those people waking up on this day in January 100 years ago actually believe Britain was teetering on the brink of war? And what kind of world greeted them when they bade farewell to the old year?

“At that stage [January 1914] I don’t think it was inevitable at all,” says Margaret MacMillan, professor of history at Oxford University and the author of “The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.”

“If anything, the decision-makers were rather complacent. They thought they’d got through a bad patch in 1912 and 1913 with wars in the Balkans. The landscape was a lot calmer than usual. There were the usual worries and tensions, but I think the British were much more preoccupied with the situation in Ireland, the Scottish independence movement, the labor movement and the suffragette unrest.”

It is true that in January 1914 the domestic front seemed to be more unstable than the global situation. The third home rule bill, intended to introduce self-governance in Ireland, had been introduced in parliament two years earlier and, in January 1914, was in the process of being vociferously opposed by Ulster Unionists.

“The year opened under the shadow of the Irish crisis,” declared the Jan. 4 edition of the London-based Observer — although the main story was a heartfelt appeal for the foundation of a repertory theatre in London.

Women were increasingly making their voices heard, too. The suffragette Emily Davison had been killed throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the Derby horse race, in southeast England, in June 1913. By December, Sylvia Pankhurst was claiming in a public speech that “we will make the Cabinet ministers shake in their shoes until they are afraid for their very lives.”

It was a time of considerable social change. In 1913, the Trade Union Act was passed and union membership was growing rapidly. A wave of strike action had led to “the great unrest” and, by January 1914, Britain was witnessing the rise of a mass labor movement. In America, on this day 100 years ago, the Ford Motor Company announced the introduction of a daily minimum wage of $5 for an eight-hour workday.

In cultural spheres, a new kind of modernism was taking hold. The Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti had visited London in 1910, one year after the publication of his manifesto, which declared that war was “the world’s only hygiene.”

According to MacMillan, Marinetti’s vision appealed to those like A Rifleman on the radical left who wanted to “bust up the old world.” In January 1914, modernism remained the preserve of a rarefied elite; when Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” had premiered in Paris in 1913, there had been a near-riot. But MacMillan says that social Darwinism — the application of theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics — had a far wider appeal.

“You’ve got the older generation, those old Oxford professor types, who feel that the young are decadent and soft and not like us, and that war does the nation good and is healthy bloodletting,” she says. “You’ve also got this feeling among some young people that war was rather glamorous.”

Yet in January 1914 Europe seemed to be enjoying a period of relative calm. The Balkan wars, during which states including Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia fought for their independence from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, appeared to have drawn to a close. The Peace Palace had recently opened in The Hague “for the peaceful settlement of differences between peoples” and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was being hailed as a glorious peacemaker with 25 conflict-free years of rule behind him.

Vera Brittain, who would later write the best-selling war memoir “Testament of Youth,” was at this time furiously studying for her Oxford scholarship exams at her family home in Buxton, Derbyshire, in England’s East Midlands, and only dimly aware of “those tentative treaties in the too-inflammable Balkans.”

The British Labour politician Norman Angell was enjoying best-seller status in Germany with his book, “The Great Illusion,” which argued that “the Great War, that eternal threat, will never come” because of economic interdependence between nation states.

In the U.S., the best-selling American novel of 1913 had been “The Inside of the Cup,” a progressive work by Winston Churchill. Not the future prime minister, but one of the most popular authors of his day who shared the same name. The other Churchill was then a father of two, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty under Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government.

What of the other key players of the unfolding 20th century? Leon Trotsky was living in Vienna as a journalist. Benito Mussolini, the future Fascist leader of Italy, was one of Italy’s most prominent socialists, publishing historical biographies under the pen name “Vero Eretico” or “true heretic.” Lord Kitchener, a British national hero after his military service in the Boer war, was the British consul-general in Egypt.

Virginia Woolf had finished drafting her first novel, “The Voyage Out.” At Madame Tussauds, a waxwork of George Bernard Shaw had just been unveiled. The polar explorer Ernest Shackleton had recently announced a new expedition to cross the Antarctic.

Cities were growing bigger and the motor car was an increasingly popular form of transport: the London Traffic Report noted that “the extinction of the horse for passenger purposes seems now almost in sight . . . [although] drivers still have much to learn in making their way through heavy traffic.”

The weather was bitterly cold — blizzards had raged across Britain, Ireland, Germany, Russia and France. In Dublin, passers-by skated in Phoenix Park. On Jan. 5, 1914, an oil tank steamer sank 30 km off the coast of Sandy Hook, New York, following a ferocious storm in the Atlantic.

If one looked carefully, there were signs that the geopolitical weather was worsening too. In Toulouse, France, a group of Serbian radicals was secretly meeting with the stated aim of “reviving the revolutionary spirit of Bosnia.” During this rendezvous, potential assassination targets were discussed, including the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose murder by the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip six months later would eventually trigger the outbreak of the Great War.

The British Army and Navy had war plans in place but, says MacMillan, “they were talking about ‘what if’, not ‘when’. It didn’t mean they were planning a war.” So if she had woken up on this morning in January 1914 as a British citizen, how does she think she would have felt?

“I’d be fairly optimistic,” says MacMillan. “I think I’d wake up and think, ‘Thank God calm has prevailed’, and be confident that the various conferences with ambassadors would be sorting stuff out.”

But that was not to be. By August, Britain was engulfed in a military conflagration of epic scale. The world as it had looked on the morning of Jan. 5, 1914, would never be the same again.