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World War One: A Hundred Years On

The centenary of World War I is being marked this year. It is indeed worthwhile to spend some time learning and understanding about it. Particularly, as we see different parts of the world in conflict with each other and a greater role of independent terror organstaions threatening to throw the world into a constantly under siege situation.

World War I (1914-1918) was one of the costliest wars with a huge loss of civialian life (7 million) and combatants(9 million). It started with a group of young Serb nationalists firing at the visitingFranz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne. Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek were visiting Sarajevo on their fouteenth wedding anniversary to inaugrate a hospital. It also happened to be the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo of 1939, in which the Serbs were defeated.

Waiting for the Archduke were a band of six men headed by their charged 19 year old leader Gavrilo Princip. After a first failed attempt by the group, Gavrilo succeeds a second time killing Ferdinand and his wife. Austria lays some strict conditions in front of Serbia fully knowing that the conditions would not be accepted by a soverign state. Sure enough Serbia does not. Germany under Wilhem promises Austria that should they go to war, Germany would throw its lot with them. The Austro-Hungarians then invaded Serbia. Russia joined the fray against Austria. Germany invaded Belgium and Luxembourg and eventually France. This caused England to join the war. An interesting fact is that the  Tsar Nicholas of Russia, Kaiser Wihelm of Germany and King George of England were in fact cousins who were going to war with each other. King George changed his family’s German name Saxe Coburg Gotha to Windsor.

The war raged on, with huge losses on all sides. Italy joined the Allies (Russia, United Kingdom and France) in 1915. Bulgaria joing the Central powers of Germany and Austro-Hungary. In 1917 United States and Japan joined the fray with the allies.In 1918 the Allies fought and drove back the Germans to win the war. An armistice or a formal agreement to stop fighting was drawn up and the war ended in 1918. Germany had to take responsibility for the war and pay huge dues to the Allies. This led to Germany’s bankruptcy and set the stage for World War II.

The world was sucked into a war that was primarily lit by a terrorist group. The conditions of the war were beyond abhorable. It is said more soldiers died of poor hygiene rather than fighting. Such was the shortage of men during the war that women and children were enlisted as men.

World War I was the end of a certain way of life. Monarchies of the Ottoman, Russian and German empires were forever extinguished. Women started playing a more active role in public life, including getting the right to vote. Indians, Africans and other citizens of the various empires too fought in the war in large numbers.

World War One is one to revisit and learn lessons, lest we repeat them.

Professor Margret MacMillan has put up a wonderful 37 day countdown to World War I. It has audio clips by her explaining the various events that led to war breaking out. You can access it here.

Terry Deary of the Horrible Histories series has published a book called Frightful First World War. It tells the story from the perspective of soldiers who fought in the war, as well as the men and women of the time. Told humorously it informs us of the grim realities of the war, the food they ate, the abysmal living conditions and some interesting World War I stories. There is also a brilliant video by the Horrible Histories to supplement the book. You can watch an excerpt of this  tremendously engaging and informative video here.

The Observer in 1914 with reference to the first world war had noted “Six months should see the end of it”. Unfortunately, it was only the beginning.

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