I used to know the ins and outs of the first world war, because Mrs Sullivan, my school history teacher told me all about it and had me write an essay about it. Now, while I still can associate stuff like Gallipoli and the Western Front and the trenches with WW1, I have forgotten all the important details, which makes me a bit of a wally during the minutes of silence we do at ANZAC day services because I’m picturing the fallen soldiers in Hollywood movie sets rather than my solid fact filled visions; I’m reflecting feebly on things I don’t know enough about.  I only have a couple of days to get my minute’s silence sorted and I can at least cover the main bits and the Australian involvement in the first world war in that time (which is fitting given that ANZAC day originally commemorated the battle at Gallipoli during WW1) but only if I’m QUICK. Here goes…

When was it (I need dates)?

The first world war (world war one, the great war, the war to end all wars, the war of the nations) raged from July 1914 to November 1918. There was a temporary truce called over the Christmas of 1914, when opposing sides ceased fire, sang carols and exchanged gifts.

What lead to the declaration of war?

Well in simple terms, the Superpowers of Europe were getting a bit big for their boots, enjoying a resurgence of imperialism – controlling countries politically from afar as per the days of colonialism. European power bearers were introducing imperialism into their foreign policy to increase trade, capital and industrial potential. As a result there were some grumpy little Davids (particularly in the Balkan states) aiming their rocks at Goliath’s balls, but more significantly, there were other already established Goliaths getting unsettled:

France and Britain aligned themselves as the “Entente Cordiale” to slow the growth of the newly unified German Empire with its grandiose designs on trade and expanding military force. This was a reluctant alliance given a long culture of hostility between France and Britain, but it was practical as many of their colonial holdings were geographically close. France was already aligned with Russia. These alliances were tested and tensions stretched in 1905 when Germany tried to take Morocco (the Moroccan Crisis) in a bid to break the alliance and provoke a crisis.

I’m thinking that Kaiser Wilhelm 2 was partly to blame for the tensions in the lead up to war – the Moroccan Crisis was his doing. He appeared to have been pointlessly power hungry, keen to play dangerous games of one-upmanship and judging by the way he expanded his naval force, probably had a very small penis.

What was the ultimate trigger (pardon the pun)?

So in June 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Austrian-Hungarian province Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were shot by a member of The Black Hand, a secret society fighting for Serbian Nationalism after the annexing of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria (imperialism at work). The Black Hand had 7 (some say more) assassins assigned to the task that day.

I felt very sad when I read about this event; when the pregnant Sophie was shot she fell onto her husband’s knees and he (mortally wounded himself) said, “Sophie dear, don’t die, stay alive for our children.” And (because I’m on a tangent now) the 3 children were raised by relatives and loved long lives – anyway why I’m getting hung up on one tragedy when I’m about to delve into about 9 million of them I don’t know.

One month after the assassinations, Austria declared war on Bosnia. Russia, defending Serbian independence, mobilized its forces and refused to respond to German demands to demobilize. On the 1st of August, Germany declared war on Russia and then things got very globally chaotic.

I think I need a timeline

Ok…1914 chaos broken down:

  • June 28 – Sarajevo assassination of Austrian Archduke at the hands of Serbia.
  • July 28 – Serbia refuses to agree to 1 of 15 terms of an Austrian imposed ultimatum, so Austria declares war on Serbia.
  • August 1 – Germany declares war on Russia after Russia refuses to stop getting all bristly over the threat to Serbian nationalism.
  • August 3 – Germany declares war on the Russian-allied France.
  • August 4 – Grumpy Germany invades little weenie Luxembourg and then neutral Belgium. Britain says ‘fair play old boy’ and declares war on Germany. Australia follows the mother country and declares war on Germany, so does Canada and New Zealand.
  • August 23 – Japan declares war on both Austria-Hungary and Germany. The two became known as the Central Powers.
  • September – A unity pact is signed by France, Britain and Russia. They became known as the Allied Forces.

These were alliances formed decades before, now formalised at war. Via their colonies, the battle for the balance of power was to spread  throughout the world and involve more than half the globe.

It is interesting to note that some scholars see WW1 as the first phase of a 30 year long conflict that ended with WW2 in 1945.

What’s the Western/Eastern front business?

Germany intended to storm easily through Belgium to deal a knockout blow to the French before facing the more slow to warm up Russia. But they faces unexpected resistance in Belgium even before Britain jumped  in to defend the neutral country. Russia mobilized surprisingly quickly and attacked Germany in East Prussia, forcing some German troops to be diverted. This allowed Britain and France to halt Germany’s advance on Paris in the Battle of the Marne. With this battle, the fighting became entrenched here in central France and became known as the Western Front. The attacks on Germany and Austria became the Eastern Front.

Two split the fighting into two fronts was never part of Germany’s plan.

How did Turkey get involved?

Late in 1914, the wily Germans tricked the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) into thinking that Russia had attacked them. The result was Turkey joining the Central Powers and fought for the Russian territories as well as the Suez canal – the crucial communication line between Britain and India. This meant that in 1915 Britain sent troops to a new front in the South at Gallipoli and Mesopotamia.

What happened in Gallipoli? 

The allies had already launched a failed attack on Turkey in the Dardanelles. Their next effort was to take Constantinople (capital of Turkey) via the Gallipoli Peninsula. The fighting began in April 1915 when Australian and New Zealand troops arrived at the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula by boat and ended in stalemate that December when the allies evacuated. Around 180,000 allied troops were killed, 8,141 of them Australian. It was here that New Zealand and Aussie troops fought side by side in the trenches and the ANZACS were born. Lone Pine is a well known part of the Battle of Gallipoli. But it was a pointless campaign that left us with 8,141 less Aussies, some oaty biscuits and a public holiday every April 25th (the day the Gallipoli campaign began) so that we can stop and remember those who never came home.

In the trenches at Gallipoli

In the trenches at Gallipoli

But perhaps it wasn’t so pointless. The Turks claimed victory and huge triumph over the campaign and there is no doubt it was a tragically bad plan on the part of the Allies, but as the first major battle undertaken by Australia and New Zealand, it is considered by many to be the catalyst for national consciousness and mateship for both these countries. Of course we wish it had never happened but it would be nice to think that those young men gave their lives for something.

And here’s some stuff to help with the moment of silence visuals; picture this – Extracted from the diary of Australian Signaller Ellis Silas (who survived Gallipoli):

Pope’s Hill – daybreak – down in the Valley, in the midst of this frightful hell of screaming shrapnel and heavy ordinance, the birds are chirping in the clear morning air and buzzing about from leaf to leaf, placidly going about its work, is a large bee – to think of what might be makes me weep, for fighting is continuing in all its fury. Our signallers have been nearly all wiped out – I suppose I’ll get my lead pill next. It has now been a ceaseless cry of, ‘Stretcher bearers on the left’ – they seem to be having an awful time up there – one poor fellow has just jumped out of his dug-out frightfully wounded in the arm; I bound it as best I could, then had to dash off with another message. All along the route, scrambling along the side of the exposed incline, my comrades offered me a dug-out for me to take cover as the snipers are getting our chaps every minute, but as the messages are important I must take my chance. All along the route I keep coming across bodies of the poor chaps who have been less fortunate than I.

The complete diary is heartbreaking. The trenches were damp and rat infested and the decaying bodies of fallen men lay everywhere.  As Silas said, “the snipers are just the natural order of things…as much a part of the landscape as the clouds”. The youngest soldier to die at Gallipoli was just 14 years old. I feel the need to use an emoticon here but it seems direspectful; silly little things they are. Anyway, anyone who didn’t die suffered terribly from delirium and shell shock.

Australian Light Horsemen, 1914

Australian Light Horsemen, 1914

The backup of the cavalry (horse mounted soldiers) did little to advance things, the Australian Light Horses and NZ and Canadian Mounted Rifles were originally used for shock tactics and fast advance. But their weakness in the face of machine guns shone through in WW1, particularly in the more significant battles such as Gallipoli.

And here’s another picture I found by chance – a group of Tasmanian nurses who were recruited to work at the hospital at Lemnos, located 110 km from Gallipoli to take the casualties.

Tasmanian Nurses at Lemnos

Moving on from Gallipoli…

Oh yes, there was more to the war of course. Right. Well the trench warfare seen in Gallipoli became the norm for the battlegrounds of the middle part of the WW1 (1916-1917). On the Western Front alone there were about 15,000 km of trenches and 800,000 soldiers at any given time. Each battalion (of about 1100 men) held their section of the front for about a week before moving back to support lines, then reserve lines, then a week ‘out of line’ before returning to the front.

The Quagmires of Passchendaele

The Quagmires of Passchendaele

The Battle of the Somme was fought on the Western Front out of the trenches. As is usual for trench warfare, there was huge loss of life on both sides by no real progress for either. 20,000 British soldiers were killed on day 1 of the Battle of the Somme (1st July 1916). All up, the battle resulted in over 700,000 allied casualties and 650,000 German. The Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium on the Western Front was fought later that same month in unimaginable conditions, again with huge loss of life and little progress.   

When did things start to progress?

Well even the German’s use of poison gas against the Russians and liquid fire against the British, followed by the British introduction of tanks (I am somehow reminded of little boys with toys here) did relatively little to progress things other than waves of panic. It was when the battle took to the skies rather than under the ground that things finally started to move forward. In the Autumn of 1915 some pretty primitive forward firing planes were released by Germany, then in July 1917 they sent bombers over London as well as bomb laden zeppelins (big gas balloony things).

Zeppelin - clumsy looking thing

Zeppelin – clumsy looking thing

Then came the wrath of the German U-boats (derived from the word unterseebooten, which shouldn’t make me smile so much). These submarines were brought in against Allied merchant shipping in certain key waterways. But it was the sinking of the American passenger liner, The Lusitania on April 6th 1917 that really set things in motion.

Progress on the Eastern Front

Meanwhile, Germany was making inroads in the East as the Russians struggled to infiltrate East Prussia. In August 1915, Poland fell when the Germans captured Warsaw and later in December 1916, the Germans helped the Austrians take Bucharest (capital of Romania). Russia was further weakened by internal unrest, fueled by the Tsar’s indifference to action on the front and the general incompetence of imperial rule. Conservative noblemen murdered the notorious Rasputin – a favourite of the Tsar – and things in Russia got altogether hectic – ie the Russian Revolution of 1917, a Bolshevik uprising which is another story to delve into another day. The upshot was that Russia was forced to withdraw from the war.

Come on, wrap it up Meg. How did the war end?

Well on April 6, 1917, a fed up and pissed of United States declared war on Germany and sent a fleet of warships to join the British Navy. Later they sent troops in to assist the allies on the ground.

On March 21st 1918, Germany launched a major offensive against the allies, using new tactics involving stormtroopers to storm the trenches using creeping barrages (eek). This was do or die for the Germans. Troops on either side were exhausted and the impending arrival of fresh US troops on the allies’ side meant the Germans had to give it their all. They brought in new long range cannons and with them were able to shell Paris from 74 miles away. 250 unsuspecting Parisians died on 23rd March as a result. Even more significantly, as the Germans stormed the Somme the Allied front line was broken.

The Battle of Lys a couple of days later resulted in more casualties on both sides, further exhaustion and very low morale, particularly amongst the Germans. In May 1918 the US troops finally arrived and claimed vicort on the Western Front at Somme. From then on, the Allies were able to hold their lines, with help from counterattacks from ANZAC and Canadian forces when Germany launched offensives. By July, the allies were back on the offensive. Their attack at Amiens on August the 8th using tanks and causing mass German confusion was described by a German official as “the blackest day of the German army”. The US launched their own successful offensive while the Italian army launched attacks on the Austrio-Hungarian empire. Phew.

Meantime, Turkey was weakened by Arab revolts and large British offensives which claimed Baghdad and Mesopotamia. The Eastern front collapsed, the Western front was collapsing and Germany was surrounded.


Armistice Joy

229945_f260On October 3rd 1918, Germany requested a ceasefire. Turkey and Austria-Hungary had followed suit by November. Fighting ceased with an armistice signed by all parties on November the 11th and at 11 am that day, hostilities officially ended (aha – Remembrance Day).

What happened to Germany after the war? 

The Treaty of Versailles which was signed after long and convoluted diplomatic negotiations on June 28th, 1919 was a day of utter humiliation for the German Empire. The country was required by the terms of the treaty to accept territory losses including Poland and Alsace-Lorraine. THey were also obligated to pay impossibly huge war reparations (that subsequently took fifty or so years to fulfill) and to admit full responsibility for the entire war (which was actually not quite right and very difficult for the Germans to swallow). After previous European wars, both sides had accepted responsibility, dealt with their losses, shaken hands and moved on. In this case, Germany copped it and the results of this harsh treatment was a bitter, impoverished country that would teeter on the brink of violence for decades, leaving it wanting for change and open to the influence of Nazis. And we all know the consequences of that (shiver). An even nastier war.

A Few Final Facts

The first world war began with a cold blooded murder, some imperialist argy bargy, a puffed up kaiser who wanted more boats that the Royal British Navy and an eagerness, even excitement to test out new weaponry and associated technology. It ended with over 16 million military and civilian deaths and a further 20 million wounded, many of whom had no understanding of what it was they were fighting for or what they were innocently caught up in. Entire countries were in ruins and economies in shambles.

When we remember the fallen, with thanks and sadness, we must also give thanks for the relative peace most of us live with now and remember how important is it is avoid such conflict at all costs.


So, I now have my minute’s silence all packaged up and ready to go just in the nick of time (missed the dawn service, going to one shortly, hence the slightly rushed ending bit and possible multiple typo’s – sorry). Actually I have enough imagery to fill many, many minutes of silence. Underscoring it will be the sense of how damn lucky I am not to have experienced anything like this in my lifetime, and the hope that one day people will just bloody well stop killing other people.

What do you see during the silence of ANZAC and Remembrance days?

Click here if you’d like to read up on the Vietnam War.

And here’s the poem I wrote on ANZAC day last year:

A Million Stories

Against the red of rising sun,

A million stories, more

Whisper to bring the years undone,

Call back a dreadful underscore.


Talk to me, I’m listening,

Bring anger, tears and shame,

Let your toils rise up and sing,

Cry pain and shout your names.


Today our peace is piercing, loud;

Our comforts now abrasive

As fury builds and sorrow shrouds

For what you had to give.


These memories don’t belong to me

Yet I will make them mine

You are those I’ll never see

Yet long will thanks enshrine.

red poppy

Categories: HistOracles

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. It took more than the wee small hours before the dawn service to write all that! Thank you for it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s