Vigils to mark First World War centenary

British Private John Parr set off on his reconnaissance bike on the lookout for German troops amid the rolling farmland and woods south of Brussels in August 1914.

Vigils to mark First World War centenary

It was the last anyone saw of ‘Ole Man’ Parr, the ironic nickname he won due to his tender age of 17. He became known as the first Commonwealth soldier to die on the Western Front of World War I, likely killed by German gunfire.

Another British private, George Ellison, was already moving to face the Germans in southern Belgium for the first battle of the two empires. He went on to survive the horrific slaughter of the Somme and Passchendaele and came back to the Belgian pastures, where he was shot and killed on November 11, 1918 — the last day of the war.

Now, Parr and Ellison lie separated by a few footsteps — and nine million dead soldiers over four years — in the cemetery of Saint Symphorien. The jarring contrast of distance and death count symbolises that, in the early August days of 1914, few knew what hell the great powers of the age unleashed when they declared war.

“They didn’t, most of them, foresee what the war would turn into,” said Oxford University historian Margaret MacMillan. “And if they had known what the war was going to be, four years of huge slaughter, consumption of resources, destruction in many cases of their own societies, they might have thought differently.”

Nobody foresaw the cataclysm that would befall the world the day of August 4 when the conflict erupted in full force with the German invasion of Belgium and the British declaration of war. Both sides believed the war would be over by Christmas. Instead, a battlefront scar would slowly and agonisingly rip across Europe, ravage whole societies and millions of families. It produced a moral wasteland in Germany that would become fertile ground for the rise of Nazism. Four empires would disappear.

Tomorrow, French President François Hollande will host his German counterpart Joachim Gauck near their common border in oft-disputed Alsace to underline their friendship despite bitterly fighting two world wars in the 20th century. On Monday, Gauck will join Britain’s Prince William, his wife Catherine and brother Prince Harry at the Saint Symphorien cemetery for a similar remembrance. In Britain, there will be ceremonies in Glasgow and a candlelit vigil at London’s Westminster Abbey.

In Ireland, President Michael D Higgins unveiled the first Cross of Sacrifice ever erected in the Republic to servicemen and women killed in both World Wars.

Hundreds of thousands of Irishmen and women served with the British andCommonwealth armed forces during both world wars. As many as 60,000 Irishmen and women were killed in combat.

The markings set off four years of centennial events from the United States to Russia, China to Australia, through Belgium, France, Germany and Britain — underscoring that there was hardly a place on the planet untouched by the calamity.

With soaring tensions over Ukraine, the causes of World War I have had special resonance this year. A century ago few thought war was imminent until the June 28 killing in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Yet, those shots fired by Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Bosnia-Herzegovina carried tragic echoes. A political puzzle of complicated alliances fell into place that inexorably closed in on total war between the alliance of German and the Austro-Hungarian empires and the Allied powers of Britain, France and Russia.

Then, as now, global peace and prosperity did not seem an unreasonable expectation.

“Europe went so quickly from peace to war — five weeks, from the assassination June 28th in Sarajevo to a general war on August 4,” said MacMillan. “And you do feel, ‘don’t you realise what you will be throwing away.’ People are on summer holidays in these lovely towns. Europe is getting more prosperous and they are about to throw themselves into this catastrophic struggle.”

In a half dozen crises over the five years leading to the Great War, countries had always stepped back from the brink. This time though, “you had people who had decided for various reasons they were not going to back down.”

Germany opened the Western Front on August 4, sweeping into Belgium, hoping to overwhelm France before Russia had a chance to mobilise to the east.

The Schlieffen Plan was conceived as a lightning-fast operation that would bring German forces into Paris within weeks. It is why the fierce battles around Belgium’s Liege and Mons have such significance — since holding up the Germans for a few days, even in defeat, delayed their operation and deprived them of a swift victory.

It is what gives the death of Parr — on August 21, 1914 — and some 1,500 British soldiers in Belgium military meaning, said Peter Francis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

“It was an ordered defeat, if that makes sense,” Francis said, “It is a defeat that bought time. It allowed the Schlieffen Plan to be held up and start to crumble. It was a defeat that bought another day.”

Such defeats bought more than that. They bought another week, another month. And, in a sense, four more years.

How the Great War began

- The trigger for the outbreak of war was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914, by a Bosnian nationalist gunman.

- Austria-Hungary blam-ed Serbia and mobilised their forces for war on July 28. Russia, Serbia’s friend and protector, then mobilised her army, which led in turn to Germany, Austria-Hungary’s ally, mobilising hers.

- Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 after she refused to cease mobilisation. Germany and France declared war on each other on August 3 after Germany had demanded free passage for its troops through Belgian territory.

- Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 after the German army invaded neutral Belgium.

- The 1914 Treaty of London saw Britain, France, and Russia promise not to make a separate peace with Central Powers Germany and Austria-Hungry. As a result the three countries became known as the Allied or Entente Powers, or simply the Allies.

- During the war, the Allied and Associated Powers mobilised more than 42m men.

- In all, around 10m people are thought to have perished, with more than 21m soldiers wounded.

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