Royal Irish Rifles, the Somme, 1916
Royal Irish Rifles, the Somme, 1916

Exactly one hundred years ago today, Germany decided to go ahead and poke a bunch of bears and marched its army into Belgium, provoking Britain into declaring war on Germany. The first four days of the month had been dedicated to Germany declaring war on Russia and France. And just like that, what began as a tragedy for the Austro-Hungarian royal family developed into the first global war, which would rage on for four years and nearly destroy an entire generation.

There were a lot of factors that led to the outbreak of World War I, but a big one was the complicated series of treaties and alliances that developed throughout Europe in the 19th century. Although the countries swapped partners more frequently than the Kardashians, eventually it settled down into the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Entente Cordiale (Britain and France, which later also included Russia thanks to the Anglo-Russian Convention, turning it into the Triple Entente). Ironically, many of these agreements were entered into in an attempt to keep all these European countries from destroying each other. Guess how that worked out?

It might, actually, have been effective if Germany hadn’t gone and gotten itself a megalomaniacal (and possibly brain-damaged) emperor who decided to entertain himself by entering into a naval arms race with Britain. Although Kaiser Wilhelm was first cousins with the English king, George V, he had no problems pushing his kinsman towards a real-life game of Battleship. Other powers throughout Europe uneasily noted the massive weapons these two were stockpiling and said, ‘hey, maybe we should start pumping out weapons too, just in case.’ And so, they did.

Meanwhile, over in Eastern Europe, things were tense (some things never change). Austria-Hungary reached out and nabbed Bosnia and Herzegovina from the crumbling Ottoman Empire, which the Bosnians and Herzegovinians weren’t too pleased about. Neither were the Serbians and Russians. The whole region descended into a chaotic state of war in 1912 and by 1913 was seriously unstable. The following year, the heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, thought Bosnia would be a great place to visit and put in some facetime. Guess how that worked out? Interestingly, though, the Austrian people didn’t even seem to care that their future king was dead. Austrian authorities in Sarajevo, however, did care (or maybe they were just looking for a reason to go and kick some Serbian ass) and soon there was rioting in Sarajevo while authorities started violently suppressing ethnic Serbs throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The European superpowers swung into action and tried using some diplomacy to quell this crisis, but Austria-Hungary was out for blood and delivered a set of demands to Serbia that were deliberately made unacceptable, in order to provoke a war. When Serbia had the gall to reject two of the demands, Austria-Hungary declared war on 28 July. Russia, realising that a victory would mean increasing Austro-Hungarian power in the Balkans, mobilised on behalf of the Serbians the following day. Germany threatened to declare war on Russia if they didn’t cease to mobilise, and though Russia offered to negotiate with Germany, Germany wouldn’t have it and declared war anyway on 1 August. At the same time, Germany ordered France to remain neutral. And then Germany attacked Luxembourg on the 2 and declared war on France on the 3. And then Britain entered the fray and it turned into a complete shitstorm, if you will.

By 1918, most of the countries involved had lost their monarchies and a massive chunk of their able-bodied menfolk. Harsh reparations against Germany fuelled the resentment that would help lead to the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, while Russia emerged as a communist state, and the creation of numerous countries in Eastern Europe, splintered off from former empires but each containing significant ethnic minorities that did not always get along at all, caused some problems we’re still facing to this day. The ancient Ottoman empire, tottering already at the start of the war, collapsed completely, while in Britain stability was threatened by a serious economic recession immediately following the war and by the increasing assertiveness of Commonwealth nations that, having helped Britain win the war, were not so inclined to remain subordinate. The women of Britain followed a similar thought process, and were finally given the vote shortly after World War I ended. China, which had sent thousands of labourers to France during the conflict, very reasonably asked that the German colonial holding of Jiaozhou Bay be returned to them. The Allies not only refused the request, but granted all of Germany’s pre-war territories and rights in China to Japan (which was on the side of the allies during the war), seriously pissing off the Chinese, who refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles and instead signed a separate peace treaty with Germany in 1921.

Despite the fact that World War I was known as ‘the Great War’ and ‘The War to End All Wars,’ it was, sadly not to be. Less than

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