Tuesday 4 August 1914
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve been reading this book to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.
The war could be said to have started a week earlier, on 28 July 1914, with the Austria-Hungarian Empire’s declaration of war on Serbia. Hostilities actually commenced on 29 July, with the Austrian shelling of Belgrade, but it was only on 4 August that German troops crossed the Belgian frontier, and only on 12 August that Austria actually invaded Serbia. German troops invaded neutral Luxembourg on 1 August, but the Luxembourg army did not resist, and German occupation was accepted under protest, but without fighting.
So 4 August 1914 was the day that rhetoric became reality, the start of the war that would be fought all over the world, and would last four years.
So this book, illustrated by the author, is a dramatic hour-by-hour account of the events of that day — diplomatic, military and civilian.
The book was first published in 1970, a little over 50 years from the end of the war, and thus shortly after many of the restricted archival documents dealing with the war were released for public viewing. Thus the author can reveal not only Germany’s public stand for peace and moderation with the deterioration of Austrian-Serbian relations following the assassination of the Archduke, but also that Germany secretly encouraged Austria to attack Serbia, in the belief that it would be a quick local war. When Russia began mobilising in support of Serbia, the Germans began to get cold feet, and urged restraint on Austria, but having been told that such peaceful utterances were for public consumption only, and were to be ignored, Austria went ahead anyway. German miliary planning required that France, Russia’s ally, be attacked first, and the pathway to France lay through neutral Belgium, and so the fighting began, and brought Britain into the war. Many declarations of war preceded and followed this day, but this was the day on which serious fighting began.
Ian Ribbons bases his chronology on Greenwich mean time, so that one can see events that were happening almost simultaneously in widely separated places, and that only adds to the drama of the day. It would be a good read at any time, but on this day it is especially poignant.
So much for the book itself, but there are more thoughts on this day than can be sparked off by a single book, and more thoughts sparked off by that book than can be encompassed by a single review. Ribbons starts his story with the observation that “five times within eight years a crisis has pushed the Great Powers of Europe to the brink of war.”
Probably no one now alive remembers much of it. A few years ago the last people who fought in it died, and and anyone still alive now who was born before it ended would have been an infant, and would not have remembered much.
Fifty years ago, when I was a student, I attended a lecture by Professor Edgar Brookes, emeritus professor of history at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. It was a public lecture to mark the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and the 25th anniversary of the start of the second. He recounted some of his own experiences in the war; back then it was still within living memory.
Now there are still people around who knew people who had been through it, but soon they will be gone too. So I recall stories that people told me at second or third hand.
About the same time my mother told me about her uncle in Scotland, Tom Hannan, was jailed as a conscientious objector during WWI. Being a pacifist, I was eager to know more about this heroic kinsman, who I pictured being confronted by angry ladies wanting to show him a white feather. My mother laughed, and said that he wasn’t a pacifist, he was a socialist, and refused to fight because it was an imperialist war. A couple of years after that met his son, Willie Hannan, then Labout MP for Maryhill in Glasgow, my mother’s cousin. I asked him about his father, and he said yes, he remembered them coming to arrest his father, who was a respectable man, and hadn’t done anything wrong. I got the impression that cousin Willie was embarrassed by the whole thing, and thought the less said about it the better. Tom Hannan’s brother, Stanley Livingston Hannan, however, was a Captain in the Royal Artillery, and was killed at Cambrai in 1917.
So our second and third hand memories will gradually coalesce into a vague picture and then disappear into the past as a story told only in history books. But some things remain:
The sun that bids us live is waking
Behind the cloud that bids us die
And in the murk fresh minds are making
New plans to blow us all sky-high.
As one bishop puts it:
The one hundred years since the beginning of the First World War is unlikely to prompt an ardent international response. Some places will build monuments to the heroes, others will clean up the memorial cemeteries, and festivities will be held elsewhere. But will the war anniversary become a reason for rethinking its outcomes on the global scale? Will the outcomes of the two world wars be a lesson to global leaders on whom it depends whether the third one will begin (Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk).
 from Quake, Quake, Quake: a leaden treasury of English verse by Paul Dehn.