In 2014, we commemorate the centenary of the beginning of one of the most brutal, vicious conflicts the world has ever seen – World War One, the “Great War”, which was waged throughout Europe from 1914 to 1918. In the first part of GAR’s series looking at the dawn of air combat and how early aviation was shaped by warfare, Kieran Lear looks at the background to the war and how Europe eventually came to blows.
2014 sees an important year to commemorate a number of significant events that have shifted history for many generations. Whilst it is, of course, 70 years since the infamous amphibious landings of Allied Ground Forces- known historically as “D-Day”, as well as 75 years of the outbreak of World War Two, it is also the centennial of the Great War, an event sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914. Over the next four years, the world saw some of the bloodiest conflicts to date. Throughout 2014, several members of the GAR team will endeavour to cover all aspects of Great War tributes commemorated by airshows and events throughout the UK and in western Europe.
At the time World War One broke out in 1914, Europe was divided. Two agreements and alliances were pitting powerful nations against each other, with Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary binding together to create the Triple Alliance. Britain too, fresh from her spell of “splendid isolation”, saw a bond emanate between herself, France and Russia, thus creating the Triple Entente agreement, however there was no promise that one country would come to the aid of the other in case of attack from the Triple Alliance. The notion for an allegiance between Britain and France was clear; Britain, at the time, had the strongest navy in the world. France, on the other hand, had a weak offering of naval warfare but had their ace card in their army quantities.
The inclusion of Russia may be seen by some to be an odd choice of ally considering the geographical ramifications that divided the allegiance on paper. In truth, the Russian Royal Family had relations with royalty in Britain. Despite the country still living in “Imperialistic” times with ancient resources and equipment as well as an imperial hierarchy, Russia could still salvage a feared army that could meet Germany if it so needed to. This on the east and the French on the west sent a clear propaganda message to Germany.
In complete contrast, the idea of Germany and Austria aligning together originated largely from their shared “mother tongue.” Both spoke the same language, had similar cultures and were once part of the Holy Roman Empire. Politically, Austria had troubles in the Balkans. Realising its woes and the brewing potential for conflict, Austria struck up an alliance with Germany and soon after, Italy followed. The Alliance, unlike the Entente, had promised to support another of the countries if one was attacked.
For many years, in fact, both Britain and Germany had been pondering over the progress of each other’s foreign policies as well as industrial advancements. For Germany, the inspiration for becoming the most powerful country in the world evolved from Britain and her colonies. Throughout the reign of Queen Victoria and in the 19th century, Britain had seized multitudes of colonies dotted across the globe causing envy and dismay amongst many rival countries – Germany included. Germany believed that in order to sustain great power, they must seize their own colonies and build a similar Empire.
The colonies considered “best” were already taken by Britain, but Germany didn’t stop in its objective to gain territory. Africa was a target for Germany and was originally deemed useless by other countries as a colony. Despite frosty relations with Britain looming as a consequence of this, Germany went ahead with seizing the “useless desert” as a means of securing a propaganda victory over the British government. In reality, the colony had little, if any, effect on the German economy and, thus, was only taken by Germany as a way of symbolising power to the Triple Entente.
Another factor fuelling the rivalry between the two nations was the paranoia Britain had garnered due to the increasing size and strength of the German Navy. In the eyes of Britain, the need to increase a naval force, considering Germany was largely a land-locked country, was obscene and unjust. Britain concluded that the German Navy was bolstered to meet the British Navy in the North Sea.
As a result, the infamous “Naval Race” commenced which saw both countries spend huge amounts of money on industry and naval war machines in between 1906 and 1914. As a consequence, in 1914, Britain had built 38 dreadnought ships in comparison to Germany’s 24. It’s interesting to note here, that before the outbreak of the First World War, the concept of using the aircraft in war was deemed as “lunacy” to some top-brass British Generals. In 1914, the idea of the aircraft was still relatively new and unexplored. As well as that, designs were simple and crude with no thought placed on the idea of utilising the aeroplane in combat, should it need to go to war.
Relations between Britain and Germany mid-1914 were certainly not at their best; however, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria-Este and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, at Sarajevo had a severe affect on the relations which would eventually lead to the start of the Great War. The murder of Ferdinand was blamed on Serbia, a neighbour of Bosnia, and the desire to align with Bosnia was high on the agenda for Serbia. Realising the reaction would be imminent from Austria, Serbia called for aid from an old friend: Russia. Realising an attack on the Russian Army would be near suicide, Austria called upon Germany for assistance and the German government agreed, their response provoking the French government.
When France declared the need to gather its army together, Germany answered by drawing up the Schlieffen Plan, its strategy for fighting successive wars on two fronts in the east and west. However, utilising its Schlieffen Plan, Germany could not conduct a war on the east and west sides of the country at the same time. Though, the German officer did believe that in the time he thought Russia could fully muster and mobilise themselves (six weeks), Germany could attack and defeat the French and then focus its attentions on the Russians before the six week estimation. The plan, however, called for Germany to attack Belgium in order to assault France. The only problem was Belgium was sworn protection from Britain back in 1839. The only country that would attack Belgium (breaking the agreement) would be Britain itself.
On 4 August 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. As a consequence, Britain declared war on Germany with France and Russia swiftly following. Austria supported their allies, though Italy was not in the war yet. British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, gave the Germans an ultimatum which required Germany to leave Belgium by midnight on 3 August, 1914. The deadline expired; Asquith had a very simple decision to make – but one that would have a cataclysmic impact on British society. He could either turn a blind eye to a war in mainland Europe that might have little impact on Britain if she stood as a neutral country. Or, the British public could see Asquith as the man who stood up to the perceived bullying of Germany and who stood for righteousness and decency. His decision to go to war in August 1914 would shape the world, and imprint itself on an entire generation.
No-one at the time foresaw the great troubles and anguish that would see both sides of the alliances suffer, whether it is through trench warfare, naval warfare or the dawn of air combat. We fast forward a century, and generations today are reminded of the brutal, harsh sacrifice and conditions that were bestowed upon our forefathers at the time of the bloodiest of wars. It’s important to remember and imperative to all that despite there being no living direct links to the sacrilege of World War One, it is our duty to remember and never forget the heroism and bravery shown in the trenches, as well as in the air and at sea, and to remind our youth and their brothers and sisters of the brutal reality of war and conflict and how, over time, lessons have been learnt for the better.
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
“Before Action” – Lt. Noel Hodgson, 29 June 1916
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