The Causes of The Great War

The First World War began in 1914. Today marks the day that Britain and Northern Ireland entered the war.

Royal Irish Rifles in a communications trench, first day on the Somme, 1916.

Over 9 million soldiers died in the 4 years until 11 November 1918.  Total direct casualties were over 37 million (source).

My great grandfather Sidney was in the trenches in the Great War.  He never spoke of his experiences.

The causes of the war are complex. The trigger for the war was the assassination of the Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist.

The true causes of the war?

  1. The rise of Nationalism.  “My country is better than any other” was a popular belief in Britain, France, Germany.  This storyline blinded the population and the leadership to the real facts of the situation.
  2. The rise of Imperialism in Germany threatening Great Britain’s sense of world superiority.  Germany were rapidly building a powerful navy and Great Britain were concerned about Germany overtaking their control of the seas.  Germany wished to build an international empire “worthy” of their status as a leading power.  Britain felt this ambition threatened their own empire.  Both Britain and Germany had interest in a valid reason to “adjust” the balance of power.
  3. Delusional Arrogance of the aristocratic leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Britain. They were surrounded by “yes-men”.  Roles were filled by family connection not by merit.  Each leader was led to believe by their advisors that they had massively superior military capabilities. Each country believed that the conflict would be over in a matter of weeks.  “It will be over by Christmas” was the general view of the British soldiers as they headed off to war.  Germany’s first 3 days of war was so incredibly successful (Belgium and northern France collapsed entirely) that the country got very excited by the war.
  4. Political Power more important than Human Rights.  Military and Political leaders who saw soldiers like pawns on a chess board – expendable units for a few yards of advance.  Military technology had moved ahead in giant leaps, but military tactics remained locked in the distant past.
  5. Internal weaknesses in Russia and Germany – the senior leaders needed an external enemy to avoid revolutions and major changes in their own regimes.  Russia had lost a recent war with Japan and needed a victory to boost moral.  Germany was a weak confederation and Kaiser Wilhelm needed a common dangerous enemy to unite factions.
  6. “Sleepwalking” diplomats that watched the events unfold without having a sense that the continued build up would reach all-out war.  Europe had not had a major war in almost 100 years and senior diplomats were often chosen for their family ties, not for their experience or wisdom as spokespeople for their nations.

 

The song “The Green Fields of France” is often sung in pubs in Ireland to remember the fallen of the war.  It is an intensely sad song that always makes me feel an intense gratitude to be alive today and to live in a time when myself or my friends and children are not under the threat of spending 4 years in trenches.  The song asks whether we have ever learnt the lessons of the war.  I hope we do.  My own personal ambition is to teach the world to use words so powerfully that guns are not needed.  This is a big challenge.

The Green Fields of France

by Eric Bogle

Well how do you do, young Willie McBride,
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while ‘neath the warm summer sun
I’ve been working all day and I’m nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the dead heroes of nineteen-sixteen.
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene.

Chorus :
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly,
Did they sound the dead-march as they lowered you down.
Did the bugles play the Last Post and chorus,
Did the pipes play the ‘Flooers o’ the Forest’.

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined
Although you died back there in nineteen-sixteen
In that faithful heart are you ever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Enclosed and forgotten behind the glass frame
In a old photograph, torn and battered and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame.

The sun now it shines on the green fields of France
The warm summer breeze makes the red poppies dance
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds
There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard it’s still no-man’s-land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generaation that were butchered and damned.

Now young Willie McBride I can’t help but wonder why
Do all those who lie here know why they died
And did they believe when they answered the cause
Did they really believe that this war would end wars
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain
The killing and dying was all done in vain
For young Willie McBride it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again.

 

Further Resources

 

18 Comments

  1. Probably countries, societies learnt something from world wars, but knowledge that gained manipulating by a strange way from politicians to succeed their goals. But I am afraid that not many things changed. In a way some old tactics do also using now days, as we can see round the globe there are some places that crisis is back.
    Hope things to be changed in future and more school, Universities and academics to teach people for a better societies.
    Peace, peace, peace

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  2. Although western countries such as UK along with Australia and alot of European countries enjoy peace. This cannot said of alot of eastern countries such as those in the middle east. The mistakes of the past have been learnt to a certain extent, however countries alike must treat each others issues in much more mature manner.

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  3. …informative post.

    Can we talk more about the solution for this or what could be our contribution in making it better?

    Like

  4. There is no better business than war business, is there? And the greatest weapon: information control. Again, and again, and again.
    There is nothing to be commemorate about any war but its ENDING.
    The commemorations of WWI taking place at present are a pretty mockery that probably would turn in their tombs any man or women whose lives were taken by or because of it. A televised distraction in terrible times for human rights. It is nonsense to celebrate WWI sacrifices on the centenary of its onset while terrible war crimes are taking place around the world with impunity. Most vividly today Palestine being assassinated.
    Travelling and learning how others speak and breath can help but it is not guaranteed to free your mind. We carry concepts and understandings of the world that were injected into us unnoticeable through the education and information we received via school, family or unfortunate/lucky experiences. We are not all born with the sensitivity for understanding ‘the other’. And not many decide to investigate further and inform themselves broadly. Only these can have a chance, if any, of freeing their minds and have genuine thinking. What and how you are given or receiving information, be it social, political, financial, is key to the possibility of being able to sense and identify repetitions of historical contexts.
    Reading these list above of WWI context is like reading todays news. Just substitute some key words. Again, and again, and again

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  5. There is no better business than war business, is there? And the greatest weapon: information control. Again, and again, and again.
    There is nothing to be commemorate about any war but its ENDING.
    The commemorations of WWI taking place at present are a pretty mockery that probably would turn in their tombs any man or women whose lives were taken by or because of it. A televised distraction in terrible times for human rights. It is nonsense to celebrate WWI sacrifices on the centenary of its onset while terrible war crimes are taking place around the world with impunity. Most vividly today Palestine being assassinated.
    Travelling and learning how others speak and breath can help but it is not guaranteed to free your mind. We carry concepts and understandings of the world that were injected into us unnoticeable through the education and information we received via school, family or unfortunate/lucky experiences. We are not all born with the sensitivity for understanding ‘the other’. And not many decide to investigate further and inform themselves broadly. Only these can have a chance, if any, of freeing their minds and have genuine thinking. What and how you are given or receiving information, be it social, political, financial, is key to the possibility of being able to sense and identify repetitions of historical contexts.
    Reading these list above of WWI context is like reading todays news. Just substitute some key words. Again, and again, and again

    Like

  6. Nice post Connor, another amazing classic that tells the story that no soldier from WW1 wanted to say a word about is All Quiet in the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. I read it only a couple of years ago and apart from the trenches unfortunately when it comes to politics not much seems to have changed …the last words of the song above describe it well.
    But maybe there is some hope that countries stop fighting for land and resources. Would a world built upon the “Cradle to Cradle” design philosophy change that? William McDonough gave a TED talk about 13 cities being built under such concept in China. If that’s successful maybe peace is possible?

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  7. Read American Marine General: Smedley Butler’s “War is a Racket”.

    Power and money….with power comes money. Why do you think all the millionaire leftists supported an ignorant black man to become president? They get richer, dems remain in power….nothing will ever change….republicans, democrats….it’s all a game of power and privilege. It’s no different for republicans.

    Military service should be required at age 60 and not before. No soldiers < 60 years old. How many wars then?

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    1. Interesting idea – conscription at 60+!

      I do think that we have had a major change in how we appreciate human life in western society – Maybe the press has been pivotal in shining a light into war practices… but you bet that someone is making a nice margin on bombs…

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  8. Most of “we” are not responsible for wars. War is too easy for those few elite who have millions of innocent victims they care nothing about to do their fighting. Three decades ago I had a brief conversation with a distant German cousin who had lost all seven of his older brothers in WWII. He survived because he was too young to fight. If seven of eight brothers died fighting an elites’ war, do I suspect that they hated the people they were forced to kill in order to survive?

    One might spend years reading the hundreds of books written about WWI available on Project Gutenberg. It was known months before the war started that Belgium and Northern France were easy picking, mainly because Belgium was neutral and defenseless, and because the region was relatively flat and easy to navigate. Quite some time before the war began, the elite had been arguing amongst themselves about how France would be carved up. France would cease to exist. They were already arguing over the spoils before the war even began. On the other hand, I have a feeling that the many millions of poor peasants who would be conscripted to die in the trenches were thinking more about how they would feed their hungry families than about how they would carve up the spoils of war.

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    1. Important aspect “we” is often not representative of all of “we”. I think war sounds exciting to many people – the idea of glory in battle probably beats a standard 9-to-5 call center job for imagined excitement… but the downsides (and realities) of war are pretty big.

      I remember a book by a war reporter – saying he missed being on the front lines – there is an intensity to living that he had never again found back in civilisation.

      Perhaps what we need is to find a way to allow us to make our lives exciting enough that we don’t believe in fantasies sold by military elites about the glory of war…

      Kurt Vonnegut says that a meaningful story needs bad things to happen to people… this allows us to see what they are made of. We can live in such a comfortable cocoon for most of our lives that we, or others, never really see what we might be capable of.

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  9. Do you think that the big players from the greatest industry (weapon’s industry), those big big bosses will allow people to learn their lessons?…
    Those are their money and especially their power, you think they can give it up?…
    (Nooo….)
    That’s what I’m thinking to, because their EGO is so strong, and they are so weak to face it. just like in the movie Revolver: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3vM1PcrV0k
    ,,If you cannot do it, than you are not a free man” (defeat your EGO)
    And remember: ,,NO EGO, NO FEAR”

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  10. “The great war”… indeed we shouldn’t forget.
    My grand-mother lost her father when she was 12 because of “the great war”. But other wars happened since then. My mother lost her father when she was 15 because of the Algerian War.
    But I am happy that my children know both of their grand-fathers : one in France and one in Germany. Learn our history but also a foreign language, travel and make international friends. Those are some of the keys to peace which we can promote and convey to our children.

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    1. I was reflecting a lot as I wrote this post, and was watching BBC’s coverage of the ceremonies of remembrance. I think “learn a foreign language, travel and make international friends” is the best gift to our children and to ourselves. It is dangerous to stay home and think that we are better.

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