NEWBURY, England -- World War I began as most wars do with patriotic fervor and predictions of a quick end. It lasted four years.
While the match igniting the "war to end all wars" was lit by the assassination of Austria's Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, formal declarations of war occurred 100 years ago on July 28 (Austria declares war on Serbia) and Aug. 1 (Germany declares war on Russia, and Russia on Germany). Aug. 1, 1914 will be commemorated Sunday at a charity event to benefit current British war veterans at Highclere Castle, the site of the PBS series "Downton Abbey."
The observance will begin with a worship service led by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, followed by period music, games, speeches, and other events one might find at an American state fair.
It is a truism that wars are started by old men who send young men (and now women) to die. What was then called The Great War turned out to be "great," but only in its carnage. The figures, though still in dispute, are staggering even to this day. According to figures compiled by the U.S. Justice Department, there were more than 37 million casualties, including dead, wounded and missing. Russia and Germany lost the most (1.7 million and 1.73 million respectively), followed by Austria-Hungary (1.2 million), France (1.35 million) and Britain (908,371). The U.S., because of its late entry into the conflict, suffered 116,516 dead, 204,002 wounded.
Contributing to the slaughter was Germany's use of modern weaponry, including machine guns. Other European nations employed weapons and tactics used in previous wars. Inept commanders, of whom there were many, were also to blame. Rain, mud and cold, which incapacitated men and machines, along with inferior and sometimes tardy medical care, contributed to the death toll.
Of all the wars, this one may have been the least predictable. As historian Max Hastings writes in "Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War in 1914":
"The war had not been precipitated by popular nationalistic fervor, but by the decisions of tiny groups of individuals in seven governments." He quotes the Fabian Society's Beatrice Webb, who was offended by what she called "the disgusting misuse of religion" to stimulate patriotism. Sound familiar?
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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