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More than 8.5 million men from 16 different countries lost their livesImage: AP

Great War Generation No Longer Around, Legacy Remains

DW Staff (dre)
August 1, 2004

Ninety years ago this weekend, the first, confused steps were taken to Europe's first bloody war of the 20th century. Not only would the Great War kill millions, it planted the seeds that would eventually start WWII.


On the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1914, Lucien Finance watched as a group of German soldiers marched through his small city, triumphal march music blaring.

Like the rest of his friends, Finance ran behind the proud soldiers, off to fight on the first of what would become one of the most brutal wars in history.

"Then, my Dad said, 'Within the next few days, they will stop playing music,'" Finance recalled at a gathering of survivors in 1998.

His prophecy proved to be true, and music and laughter disappeared from Europe for four dark years beginning 90 years ago on Sunday. The Great War, as it has gone down into the annals of history, provided a bloody start to the 20th century. The advances made in technology and science would be put to deadly use for the first time. Railroads, tanks and poison gas would ensure that an average of 6,000 soldiers died every day of the war.

Millions were killed between Aug. 1, 1914 and Nov. 11, 1918, in a war that moved borders a few miles and at the end of which little got resolved. Historians to this day are in disagreement over who bears the most responsibility in starting the slaughter.

Tangle of alliances pulls Europeans into war

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on July 28, 1914 in any case set things in motion. The successor to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire was murdered by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The complicated tangle of alliances at the time ignited the fast burning flame that would eventually spark all of Europe into battle just five weeks later.

Ermordung des österreichisch-ungarischen Thronfolgers Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand und seiner Gemahlin Sophie durch den bosnisch-serbischen Attentäter Gavrilo Princip.
Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie just minutes before both are killedImage: AP

Germany spurned Russia to join the Austro-Hungarian empire in declaring war on Serbia. Russia, allied with Serbia, moved troops to its borders with Germany prompting Kaiser Wilhelm, on Aug. 1, 1914, to declare war on Russia.

With visions of grandeur dancing in his head, the Kaiser declared war on France and eventually Belgium just a few days later. Great Britain, pledging to protect Belgium, entered the fray soon after.

The leaders dragged their somewhat confused, yet spirited populations with them in their wake.

"In the summer when the war began, most of us were content with our lives," recalled Albert Sharpff, a German veteran who was 18 at the time. "We were relatively prosperous and the last war had happened a long time ago."

A war of horrific dimensions

The short war that everyone had expected soon turned long and bloody. Over the next four years, more than 8.5 million men from 16 countries, ranging from Russia to the U.S. and Japan died. The trench warfare and use of poison gas gave the war new and horrific dimensions. The long winters prolonged the agony.

Gasmaske mit Behaelter aus dem Ersten Weltkrieg
Needed for the first time: gas masksImage: DHM

"I was at the front in Ypres. Everything was frozen and slippery and I slipped and fell into a shell hole and saw eyes shining through the ice," recalled Ted Kimmer, then a 16-year-old soldier who left his home in Southport, England to fight. "I had landed on a frozen pile of dead corpses … I was scared to death."

News of peace, but not a long one

The young men who had spent the best years of their life at war could hardly believe it when news of a general armistice was announced on Nov. 11, 1918. A few weeks later, the Central Powers and the U.S., Japan, France, Britain and Italy met in Paris to hammer out a peace agreement.

Germany was on the losing side of the war, and Wilhelm had already abdicated his throne. In the Treaty of Versailles, the allied powers forced Germany to completely disarm, give up Prussia and Silesia in the north and the Saarland in the south and pay millions in reparations.

Friedensvertrag von Versailles wird unterzeichnet
Allied leaders French premier George Clemenceau, standing, center; U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, seated at left; Italian foreign minister Giorgio Sinnino; and British prime minister Lloyd George present for the signing of the Versailles Treaty by Germany.Image: AP

The defeat and the conditions of the treaty were designed to humiliate Germany, and they did. So much so, that a group calling themselves the National Socialist Party won unprecendeted popularity in elections in the early 1930s.

They were led by a hateful, rhetorically-gifted Austrian who tapped into his country's vein of discontent and rode it into power. Soon, the drums of war would bang again. And 20 years after the first Great War ended, the world was on the brink of a new one -- even more deadly than the last.

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