It was called the “Great War” or “The war to end all wars”. It was neither.
On the 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. In the horror of the next four and a half years, the actual cause of the war was probably forgotten and the humble Digger or Tommy on the front line if asked could probably not even tell you what they were fighting for.
There is plenty of learned information to be found on the complex train of events that led to the start of the War but I think in its most simplistic form is best summed up by Private Baldrick, a character in the 1980s television show Blackadder (Blackadder goes Forth).
· Baldrick says: I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry.
· Captain Blackadder explains: in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
· Baldrick says: But this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?
· Blackadder replies. Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan. It was <rubbish>.
· Baldrick concludes with his usual pereceptivity: So the poor old ostrich died for nothing.
In fact Blackadder’s explanation regarding the two power blocs is a succinct explanation of the cause of the war which has its origins in a bitter power struggle between Germany and Russia over the Balkans, thousands of miles from England, Belgium and France. It all came to a head on 29 June 1914 with the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian national. This act of aggression triggered a diplomatic crisis which in turn invoked the international alliances and within two months Europe was at war.
Germany’s demands that France maintain neutrality in this war led to Germany declaring war on France on 3 August 1914 and in support of its ally Britain followed with a declaration of war against Germany on 4 August 1914.
As Germany marched troops into Belgium in order to attack France, in the former colony of Australia, news of the outbreak of war travelled more slowly. I live in the old port of Williamstown in Melbourne and I have written before about Williamstown's part in the Crimean War of the 1850s (The Crimean War Part 1). Once again this quiet little town would have a significant part to play in the events that followed...
On 5 August 1914, a German ship the SS Pfalz left Victoria Dock and made a run for the heads of Port Phillip Bay with a Williamstown based pilot aboard, Captain Robinson. As it approached the Port Phillips Heads, word reached the artillery garrison stationed at Point Nepean that any German ship leaving Port Phillip Bay was to be “Sunk or stopped”. On sighting the Pfalz, the gunners hoisted flags ordering the ship to stop. When these were ignored a shot was fired over the bows of the ship. This was the first shot fired in the war.
|The guns at Point Nepean 1890|
The pilot convinced the master of the ship that the next shot would sink the ship so the Pfalz surrendered and the crew were detained as prisoners of war. The Pfalz itself was returned to the Williamstown dockyards where it was refitted and saw service as the troop ship Boorara.
2000 young men from Williamstown enlisted during the course of the war. Of those 300 were killed and over 800 wounded. Over half the number of men who left this little town headed for adventure and excitement in a war that had nothing to do with them were killed or injured. The unspeakable horrors they faced and the inept leadership demonstrated during the course of the war is well documented and in April next year we will commemorate the centenary of the ANZAC force landing on the beaches of Gallipoli.
For now it is enough that we take a moment to pause and remember that 4 August marks the start of an event that will have a monumental, if not cataclysmic effect on the population of my home town and this new, young country.
On the evening 4th August the bell of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Williamstown and those around the country will toll for 15 minutes to mark the declaration of war.
LEST WE FORGET
Alison is a lapsed lawyer who has worked in the military and fire service, with an obvious obsession for men in uniform, which may explain a predisposition to soldier heroes. She lives in Williamstown with her own personal hero (and yes, he was wearing a uniform when they met!), two pathetically needy cats and subsists on a diet of gin and tonic. Her own book based on World War One, GATHER THE BONES, has been nominated for multiple awards.