One hundred years ago today Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo. Nobody much cared for the arrogant Archduke, whose funeral was small and poorly attended. Assassination was a gruesome if regular part of political life in the Balkans: Empress Elizabeth had been stabbed to death in 1898, the governor of Galicia shot in 1908, the governor of Croatia killed in 1912, and the vicar-general of Transylvania also assassinated in 1914. Americans themselves had suffered the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. British magazine Punch published a cartoon with one anarchist asking another, “What time is it by your bomb?”
Hungry for territory, the old, rotted Hapsburg Empire fiddled for a month and then declared war on Serbia. Five days later Germany made its declaration of war on France. The guns of August had erupted.
We still scratch our heads over the start of WWI: A very small number of very small men, disconnected from their people and out to prove their machismo by territorial expansion, plunged the world into catastrophe. The aggressors believed they could win a swift war but, as George Orwell wrote, the only way to have a swift war in the 20th century was to lose it.
Culture in Battle
One acknowledged chestnut from WWI is that the technology of firepower had outstripped communications and mobility. Wireless was available but undependable, railroads inadequate, and countless broken-down automobiles were abandoned on the sides of impassable roads. Generals were left wielding million-man armies by dispatching riders on horseback. By the end of 1914, this mismatch of fierce 20th-century firepower with Dark Age communications and mobility resulted in a return to that most basic of all technologies, the shovel, and the rise of trench warfare.
The other powerful lesson learned in the first year of WWI is that new ways of killing demanded that the very culture of battle needed to change, swiftly and radically.