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World War I: Outbreak

For some time, I've tried to understand the First World War and how it could break out. WWI rarely gets the attention it deserves because of the much bigger Second World War, but it is fundamentally important to understand it; not only because it shaped the world we live in today, but also because without it, WWII could never have happened.

About ninety years ago, in the city of Sarajevo, several shots suddenly rang out among the crowds. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was killed. In a matter of weeks, the repercussions of this fatal shot triggered a war that swept the entire globe for four long years. How was this possible? Was it a mistake? A dramatic and unfortunate turn of events?

To the modern, democratic mind, the outbreak of the war is nearly impossible to comprehend. But Europe as it was in 1914 didn't know what we know today. It had come a long way from the Medieval Ages; and it had seen the development of industrialism, nationalism and colonialism. The map of Europe had been altered many times by wars between neighboring nations, in instances such as the Thirty Years war, the wars of Napoleon which swept entire Europe, and not forgetting the enmity between the two archrivals Germany and France. Many political, religous and economical factors weighed heavily upon the situation.

The long arms of the European nations reached all the way around the globe. Great Britain, the high seat of the British Empire, had colonies all over Africa and the Middle East, and whose interests stretched as far as China, Canada and Australia - "the sun never sets on the British Empire". Every corner of the world was dominated in some part, more or less, by the European nations.

Europe itself had been torn apart from the time when Roman legions conquered the barbarians of the North. It withstood bloody wars and battles which raged over the continent. Kingdoms were built, torn down, and rebuilt. When protestantism appeared under Luther, it threatened the old power structures of the catholic church, and once again Europe was torn apart by wars. The crown of European superpower leadership changed many times, and if a nation wasn't an impressive worldly power at some point, it suffered heavily under the boot of someone else.

Not only was it a battle between the protestant and the catholic churches; there was also the emerging threat from Islam that quickly came into play as the Ottoman Empire grew in power in the 14th and 15th centuries. The front lines of the invading forces ranged all through the Balkan countries, and during the centuries caused untold grief, as the civilian population found themselves living in a warzone that regularly erupted - the last of which occurred just a few years ago.

Nevertheless, the wars hitherto had been smaller and isolated. But as industrialization came along, the awesome power of the industrialized nations also became a factor. Railways were built, massive oceanliners produced, intricate methods of telecommunications were devised. The world became smaller and smaller, and the populations of the nations involved grew massively. It was no longer impossible to raise an army that consisted of millions of men, instead of tens of thousands.

Naturally, the weapons became ever more powerful as well. When the Americans fought their Civil War 1861-1865, they still stood up facing each other in lines on the battlefield and fired into each other - with moderate success. Fifty years later, accurate rifles and machine guns had been developed, although very little thought had been given to defensive measures, such as cover and concealment, prepared positions and so forth. Further, the concept of mobility had not been given much thought - people still walked on foot and moved by horses. The stage was set for battles in which an awesome firepower was introduced, but very little mobility or tactical defense. When the armies would line up to face each other this time, they would be mercilessly torn apart and cut down like grass going through a lawn-mower.

When all of these factors came together, the lines were drawn in the sand, everything was ready. The old rivals of Europe stood facing each other, teetering on the brink of war; but the times and scale of events had changed beyond their comprehension. When she shots finally rang in Sarajevo, old-school doctrine set the snowball in motion, and it rolled ever faster until no-one could comprehend the situation fully, let alone stopping it. Predetermined battle plans rolled into motion and unfolded on a larger scale than anyone had ever believed. The awesome might and thunder of industrialized Europe, fueled by distrust, hatred - in some cases racism - rolled out on the battlefield, and at the end of the war ten million people lay dead on the ground.
Lay me down, in the cold, cold ground
Where before me many men have gone
When they come I will stand my ground
Stand my ground, I'll not be afraid
Thoughts of home take away my fear
Sweat and blood hide my veil of tears
Once a year say a prayer for me
Close your eyes and remember me
Never more shall I see the sun
For I fell to a German's gun

/Sgt. Joseph Kilna MacKenzie/

The world would never be the same again. As a direct result of this war, another world war would break out 25 years later - really the continuation of the first - and this time it would be much, much bigger.


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