As Franz Ferdinand’s life ebbed on a Sarajevo street corner, the Old World order was dying with him; but nobody knew it yet. It would take a month for the full consequences of the Archduke’s assassination to become clear. A tense July raced by, and on the 28th it all started. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, and Germany declared war on Russia and France. The British Empire remained uncommitted until, in a bid to avoid the heavily defended Franco-German border, the Germans invaded neutral Belgium to further their attack on France. This immediately pushed British public opinion into a state of righteous fury. The British government threatened Germany with war if they did not get out of Belgium, but their demand went unheeded. In the early morning of the 4th of August, 1914, Britain made good on her threat, and declared war against Germany. The war, soon to be called the Great War, was officially on.

The sudden outbreak of conflict fell like a thunderbolt on the people of Europe. Within hours, the entire course of their lives had changed. Sensing the supreme gravity of the situation, Fred Coxan, a British ex-soldier and Reservist called up by the Royal Field Artillery, wrote in his journal on the 4th of August:

“General Mobilization, will it be declared?’ was the thought with me all day. My dear wife first gave me the news, but then I could not believe it, until we walked to the post office and saw the Official Declaration. And then I knew that, I should have to leave my home and dear ones —for ‘Where?’ that was my one great thought. And until then I never realized what it all meant; with the conflicting thoughts of my dear ones, and the fascination that I was going to participate in a real scrap. My mind was in a real whirl, and was so until I left home next day, for Newcastle-on-Tyne. And then —‘Where?’” (1)

In France, millions of young men received small, formally written cards summoning them to active service with the army. Overnight, men who had been shop-keepers, labourers, and bank-clerks, became soldiers—called to the defence of the nation. As these young, newly minted soldiers were dressed and equipped for war, they ran the full gambit of emotions—fear, joy, sadness, enthusiasm, homesickness, patriotic zeal. Who knew what the war would bring? The whole thing seemed immensely exciting and terribly frightful at the same time. The pendulum of emotion swung wildly back and forth between terror and jubilation. It’s no wonder why a German student-come-soldier, experiencing the same feelings as his French foes, would write to his parents: “It seemed as if one lived through as much in that hour as ordinarily in months and years.” (2)

Philip Gibbs, a British journalist, was in Paris during the first days of the war. He was old enough to have seen war previously, and he sensed a looming catastrophe just beyond the horizon. As he watched French civilians turn into French soldiers, he felt the full weight of the coming conflict:

“For even in the sunshine of that August, before blood had been spilt and the brooding spectre of war had settled drearily over Europe, there was a poignant tragedy beneath the gallantry and the beauty of that squadron of cavalry that I had seen riding out of their barrack gates to entrain for the front. The men and the horses were superb—clean-limbed, finely trained, exquisite in their pride of life. As they came out into the streets of Paris the men put on the little touch of swagger which belongs to the Frenchman when the public gaze is on him. […] Hundreds of women were in the crowd, waving handkerchiefs, springing forward out of their line to throw bunches of flowers to those cavaliers, who caught them and fastened them to kepi and jacket. […] There were no tears in that crowd, though the wives and sweethearts of many of the young men must have stood on the kerbstone [sic] to watch them pass.

At those moments, in the sunshine, even the sting of parting was forgotten in the enthusiasm and pride which rose up to those splendid ranks of cavalry who were on their way to fight for France and to uphold the story of their old traditions. I could see no tears then but my own, for I confess that suddenly to my eyes there came a mist of tears and I was seized with an emotion that made me shudder icily in the glare of the day. For beyond the pageantry of the cavalcade I saw the fields of war, with many of those men and horses lying mangled under the hot sun of August. I smelt the stench of blood, for I had been in the muck and misery of war before and had seen the death carts coming back from the battlefield and the convoys of wounded crawling down the rutty roads—from Adrianople—with men, who had been strong and fine, now shattered, twisted and made hideous by pain. The flowers carried by those cavalry officers seemed to me like funeral wreaths upon men who were doomed to die, and the women who sprang out of the crowds with posies for their men were offering the garlands of death.” (3)

All over the world, men answered their nations’ call to arms. First hundreds and thousands, and then millions flocked to the colours. Bidding, their families farewell—many for the last time—they began to march. The peace of Europe lay in ruins; shattered by two bullets from an assassin’s pistol.

On the evening of the 3rd of August—just before Britain declared war, and as dusk gathered in the streets of London on her last night of peace—the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, watched quietly from his window as the lamps were gradually lit along the darkening street. He turned to a friend and said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” With the resignation of a condemned man, Europe slipped into the long, starless night of war.


Notes:

1. Fred G. Coxan, From Notes and Well Remembered Incidences, ed. Frederick L. Coxan (2014), accessed 18 July 2014, http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/en/contributions/15138/attachments/157376?layout=0, Creative Commons license at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode.

2. Philipp Witkop, ed., German Students’ War Letters, A.F. Wedd, trans. (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 3.

3. Philip Gibbs, The Soul of War (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1915), 24 – 25.

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