On 5 May 2011, Claude Choules, an English-born Australian, died; he was 110 years old. He was also, having served on HMS Revenge, the last veteran to have seen action during World War One. With his death, the ‘Great War’ had truly passed from living memory into history.
Photographs of soldiers in the muddy trenches of the Western Front waiting to go ‘over the top’, from which many would not return, remain iconic images of the Twentieth Century. In Britain alone, barely a family was left untouched by a war that claimed the lives of 700,000 British soldiers, the ‘war to end all wars’. For generations, Britain was haunted by the Battle of the Somme. On its first day alone, 1 July 1916, we suffered 57,000 casualties, killed or wounded, the worst day in Britain’s military history. For the French, the Battle of Verdun holds equal horror.
The Urgency of War
Yet, throughout Europe and beyond, young men answered the call-to-arms in a way we find almost inconceivable today. My own father, Arthur Stutley Colley, born 1900, joined the army as an officer cadet in 1918 and wrote in his memoirs of his disappointment of having just missed the fight: ‘With the signing of the Armistice,’ he wrote, ‘the prospect of getting to the Front in time disappeared, and with it the possibility of any medal ribbons to sport on one’s chest. Faced with soldiering under peacetime conditions, after the compelling urgency of war, we were left feeling somewhat flat.’
It all started with an assassination – that of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June 1914, killed, alongside his wife, by Gavrilo Princip and his band of Serb nationalists. Exactly a month later, Austria-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. Within days, what started as a localised conflict in the Balkans, had brought in the might of Germany, Russia, France and, on 4 August, Great Britain.
It was a war of new technology and terrifying new weapons – tanks, flamethrowers and gas were first used. It was the war that killed the idealistic notion of battle – a war without chivalry, romance or glory, a war that shattered mind and body. It was a war not just of armies winning and losing battles in isolation but nations and whole societies mobilised for conflict, whole populations at the mercy of the enemy, civilians starved and bombed. It was an industrial conflict where a country’s whole economic output was geared to war. It was a war of empires that pulled in combatants from nations across the globe. It was a war of land, air and sea, a war of politics, espionage and the home front. For the first time in history, this was total war.
At the end of it, four years and three months later, nine million combatants had been killed, four empires had crumbled, revolution had swept across Russia and the stage was set for a century of further conflict. With the signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918, the road to the Second World War began.
Germany found it difficult to accept defeat. One ex-corporal spoke for many when he summed up Germany’s shame. On the day of the Armistice, the soldier had been in hospital recovering from a gas attack. He described how he sobbed into his pillow, lamenting Germany’s downfall and the politicians that, in his mind, had allowed it to happen. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Countries throughout the world are preparing for the centenary commemorations to start in 2014. In October 2012, David Cameron announced £50 million to fund nationwide commemorations throughout the four years, 2014 to 2018, and ‘to create an enduring legacy for generations to come’.
‘It is absolutely right that these commemorations should be given such priority,’ Mr Cameron said. ‘Our duty with these commemorations is clear. To honour those who served, to remember those who died, and to ensure that the lessons learnt live with us forever. And that is exactly what we will do.’
There is a plethora of material on the war, a hundred years worth of books, and now an abundance of online material, covering personal testimonies, overviews, military and social history and every conceivable aspect of the conflict.
Within this wealth of information, Harper Press is proud to offer the perfect introductory guide: World War One: History In An Hour – the ideal way to brush up on your knowledge of the war.
Read about how a car driving the wrong way down a one-way street lead to war, the explosion on the Western Front so big it was heard in Dublin, how the Parisian taxis saved the day, the Iraq and Palestinian campaigns, how the young Winston Churchill got it wrong, the war in the air and at sea, the drowning of Lord Kitchener (the man with the pointing finger), the sinking of the Lusitania, how the US saved the day, and, with a minute to go until peace, the last man killed.
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Also now available 1914: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley.