Friday, 1 August 2014

The First Shots of the Great War

One hundred years ago today, the Russian forces completed their mobilisation, and the first of Germany's Reserves mustered to join their Regiments. The Ultimata had begun to be circulated, and Germany itself was divided over the prospect of the conflict. We are often told of the 'patriotic fervour' and the 'rush to join' by the official history taught in most schools, but reading the 'Zeitungs' of the period a slightly different story emerges. Yes, there were those who saw the war as an opportunity, but they were far from being the only voices on the streets and in the corridors of power. The whole thing was still, even at this point, on a knife edge.

We are told of the mass demonstrations that greeted the Kaiser's supposed statement that henceforth he 'recognised no Patries, only the German people', but it transpires that this is a myth built around the real events. There were demonstrations of a patriotic nature in Berlin and other major cities, but the Kaiser's actual words have been paraphrased, presumably by newspaper editors. His actual words were much longer and a bit more guarded. What the papers (and subsequent historians) were a little less entusiastic about reporting was the mass demonstrations in many more cities and towns against joining the war. Even in the Reichstag - the Kaiserreich Parliament - and in the various Landestags, voices were raised in heated debate both for and against the coming conflict. There was, at this point, no united will to go to war.

Now enter 'hubris' and the fear of invasion. At some point Russian forces fired on German villages and troops in East Prussia. Coupled with this came the intelligence that the French were sending troops into Belgium to reinforce the Belgians (though this appears to have been a misleading report) and planned to occupy Luxemburg, a German affiliated independent Duchy. These events became the game changers, though there were still dissenting voices, the majority swung behind the demand to defend German territory and the die were caste.

Ambassadors began packing, diplomatic telegrams flew back and forth, and deadlines for avoiding conflict began to pass. Luxemburg was occupied without a shot fired. Indeed, one gets the impression the Luxembourgois preferred German occupation to a French one, and the armoured cruiser SMS Augsburg was despatched to Königsburg with secret orders to be executed if the Russians did not respond to the Ultimatum resulting from their having fired on Germany.

The Great War was now inevitable.

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