The guns of August 1914 are firing again. Today, 95 years after the armistice and months before the 100th anniversary of the First World War’s opening moments, we are still grappling with the forces unleashed by the conflict and, indeed, the many myths that surround how it began.
It was not the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that triggered the war, but the blank cheque Germany gave to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Without this support, they would never have issued the ultimatum to Serbia that precipitated the conflict and Russia would not have mobilised.
The convulsions in the Middle East today are, it can be argued, partly the legacy of that four-year bloodbath. The Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain carved up the Ottoman Empire into self-interested spheres of influence. The arrogance of these “great powers” was so strong that talks began on the post-war landscape three years before the guns fell silent.
These negotiations coincided with humiliating Allied defeats at Gallipoli and the deal was eventually signed in May 1916, just weeks before the allies suffered massive losses on the Somme. The modern incarnations of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq were forged in that Sykes-Picot Agreement. All three have paid the price of that carve-up in the past decade.
In Asia, the troubled relationship between Japan and China also finds its roots in the Great War. The Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe last week vowed to stand up to China, amid rising tensions between the two nations, particularly over who owns a string of islands in the East China Sea. While much of the mutual distrust between the two nations stems from their contrasting economic fortunes in the past two decades, the Chinese also have bitter memories of Japanese colonial aggression.
Japan entered the First World War on the side of the allies in 1914, participating in the Siege of Tsingtao, in a joint attack with the British on the German held port in China. It exploited this position to extend its influence. In 1915, it presented China with the humiliating string of demands for special privileges in the country and was later favoured by the allies at Versailles. An outraged China never forgot.
August 1914 represents a warning from history. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer,” wrote WB Yeats, the Irish poet, in 1920, aptly summing up the failures that brought the First World War into being. The war was precipitated by a breakdown in communication and a diplomatic failure of staggering proportions. It was brought to life by a failure of leadership, of common sense, and the result of the ridiculous notion of a clash of civilisations.
There is also a perception that the Second World War was an inevitable consequence of the Great War. Yes, Versailles was a punishing treaty and hit Germany hard. The treaty gave Adolf Hitler his most potent propaganda card and throughout the 1920s he propagated the delusional myth that somehow Germany had not been defeated in the field but had been stabbed in the back by the signatories of the armistice. But the Second World War was not inevitable because of the first.
Hitler exploited the economic turmoil of the Weimar Republic – during the 1920s the Nazi Party actually lost support – but it was the 1929 US stock market crash that doomed the Weimar Republic, reinvigorated Hitler’s march to seize power and set the scene for the approach of another devastating war.
Could Japan and China go to war over a few rocks in the sea? Unlikely as it seems, the First World War tells us that devastating conflicts have been triggered by less.
John Dennehy is a senior news editor at The National. His book, In A Time of War: Tipperary 1914-1918, was published earlier this year