In August 1914 Europe plunged into a war that would bring down three royal houses, bring countries outside of the continent into the conflict, cost the lives of millions, and change the world forever. What pushed Europe over the brink were various treaties, alliances, and understandings between imperial powers who never thought they would have to be honoured. Sadly, that was not the case with the loss of tens of millions of lives.

To try to understand the carnage, and how a generation was lost, a glance at casualty figures will give an indication. By year’s end 1914, 300,000 Frenchman had been killed, 600,000 wounded. By the November 1918 over 2,000,000 Frenchmen were dead, leaving 630,000 French war widows and many young women deprived of the opportunity of marriage. Over 5,000,000 Frenchmen were wounded and several hundred thousand were classed as mutilated.

It was a similar situation for the Germans. They lost approximately 37% of young men aged between 19 and 22. The cost in German soldiers’ lives was roughly 465,600 each year. Those alive but classed as mutilated numbered over 65,000, with over 2,500 blinded.

Serbia with a population of approximately 5,000,000 lost 125,000 combatants while 650,000 civilians died due to privation and disease. The country lost 15% of its population.[i]

Australia sent around 420,000 volunteers, approximately 38% of men aged between 18 and 44. Over 61,500 died and over 155,000 were wounded in action. Australia’s casualty rate was 64.8%: one of the highest of the war.[ii]

To attempt to comprehend what led men in their droves to their deaths we need to examine the political and social climates prior to its outbreak.

If there were to be unlikely enemies leading up to the 20th century they would have had to have been Great Britain and Germany. The British and the Germans had fought side by side to defeat Napoleon in the early 1800s; the royalty of Britain was of German lineage, and while Britain was a seapower across the globe Germany was a land power within continental Europe. However, the world had been rapidly changing since their days of brotherhood at Waterloo.

The 1800s was the period of industrialisation, colonialism; a rising middle class, literacy, mass communication, and nationalism. Each of these factors were to play their part in plunging the world into war.

Leading up to World War 1 Britain was an industrial powerhouse, perhaps only succeeded by the United States. To feed its industries Britain needed cheap raw materials from its colonies. Though the sun never set on the British Empire during its heyday the empire was, in fact, a weakly protected collection of colonies, dominions, protectorates, and refuelling stops connected by maritime communications; therefore, any threat to Britain’s sea lanes couldn’t be ignored.

To counteract european threats to its colonies the British sought alliances that would tie up an aggressor in land battles with its allies. Alternatively, there could be an arms race with Britain leading the way due to its industrial might.

Of concern to the British was Belgium. This little lowland country was potentially a fine base for an aggressor to launch an invasion of Britain. Therefore, the independence and integrity of Belgium was a cornerstone of British foreign policy.

In 1888 Kaiser Wilhem II came to Germany’s throne. He was a grandchild of Queen Victoria, and King George V’s first cousin. The royal houses were supposedly one happy family interconnected through marriage. On the surface nothing could have been sweeter than the relationship between Germany and Britain: Kaiser Wilhem was a Colonel of the British 1st Dragoons and an Admiral in the Royal Navy. Admiral Wilhem did make a lasting contribution to the British navy. When he visited his cousin George all the naval personnel saluted him differently. About this haphazard approach Wilhem made a complaint to the admiralty that then standardised the British naval salute. In Germany, George V was a Colonel of the Prussian 1st Guard Dragoons, while back in Britain, the Austrian Emperor was a Colonel of the British 1st Dragoon Guards.

Yet, despite the familial honours, Wilhem looked upon Britain with envy and saw it as the main obstacle to Germany’s place as an imperial world power. To be on equal terms with Britain he needed a navy and he was determined to have one that could match the British. He found a like-minded ally in Admiral Tirpitz[iii] who was able to build up a right wing coalition of Prussian aristocrats and industrialists. The land owning aristocrats were happy to back the naval plan. In exchange for their support the aristocrats wanted Russia’s grain imports blocked to raise their own profits; while industrialists like Krupp saw a naval build up as an ideal market for their steel manufacturing and heavy engineering.[iv]

Building a navy to match Britain’s wasn’t cheap so the idea was sold to the German people as part of the nation’s historical process, with Britain as the barrier to Germany’s progress. To paint the British as Germany’s impediment to greatness was relatively easy as the 19th Century drew to a close.

The Second Boer War began in 1899. German sympathies lay squarely with the Boers–assisting them with fundraising, allowing Boers to retreat into German colonies, and selling them superior armaments. The armaments sales were Britain’s chief concern so any German ship intercepted on route to South Africa was searched, since Germany wasn’t in any position to challenge these actions at sea. The Germans took understandable umbrage at this as they were being treated as hostiles, in Britain’s colonial war. That the British navy could stop and board a German merchant vessel at will was portrayed, and seen, as a slight to German national honour.

In fact, Germany was doing everything possible to, covertly, assist the Boers and the British knew it. Germany and Britain were playing blatant brinkmanship since neither side was ready for open hostilities.

In 1900 Germany enacted the Second Naval Law, to build a battle fleet to match Britian’s. The British weren’t idle while this was happening. They responded in kind and the world’s first arms race, in capital (Battle) ships began–the battleship being most destructive force known at the time. Within 12 years of Wilhem’s succession to the throne Anglo German relations had descended from potential alliances to overt hostility.




The British government’s most popular policy in 1906 was to outbuild Germany in capital ships. As the expenses grew there were treaties signed[v] limiting the size and number of guns and ships, akin to the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union in the latter part of the previous century; however, each side kept looking for loopholes. Germany passed the 1912 Naval Law, restricting the size of its navy but doubling the amount of men it could train for it. It became clear, to the British, that the country was preparing for war.

Up to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte Europe didn’t have conscription. Historically, peasants and serfs either had to fight for their masters or kings, but once the war (or battle) was over they returned to their homes, perhaps to fight another day. Wars and battles were seasonal as crops needed to be planted and sewn. Full time soldiering was a noble profession for the aristocracy. If you were a commoner in Britain you took the King’s shilling and soldiered under the whims of your officers, then discharged when hostilities ceased. The number of experienced soldiers a country could muster waxed and waned; however,Napoleon, with conscription, was able to muster large numbers of trained men for his battles.

Following France’s lead, Prussia introduced a system of conscripts and reservists and defeated the Austrians in 1866, and the French in 1870. Soon all of Europe, with the exception of Britain, initiated conscription, requiring the conscripts, after training and serving, to remain at the state’s disposition as reservists for various lengths of time. The German model was two years in uniform, then five years as a reservist with annual return to unit for retraining. At the age of 39 the reservist became part of a secondary reserve; at 45 years he became part of the third-line reserve. The French, Austrians, and Russians had similar arrangements so, aside from their regular armies, these nations could call upon a huge pool of trained men for active service.

Britain had a different strategy to that of a large ground force. The Royal Navy would control the seas and blockade the enemy while any European continental conflict would be fought by the armies of the countries concerned. If required, Britain could send an expeditionary force to support its allies on the ground: a strategy that served it well against Napoleon nearly 100 years previously.

The officer class of Europe’s armies were, for the most part, solidly enmeshed in antiquated ideas of how to fight a modern war. Whereas, previously, with smooth bore muskets armies could march towards each other firing their guns the introduction of mass produced rifle barrels and machine guns changed how battles were to be fought. A bullet from a rifled barrel could be accurately fired at 500 meters or more; whereas a musket ball from a smooth bore barrel was a hit or miss affair at anything over 50 meters.


Boer commandos in an improvised trench at Mafeking.

 Improvised fortifications–like the shallow defensive trenches the Boers–caused major losses to the British at Tugela and Modder rivers during the Boer War. These shallow trenches were seen again in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese war and at Chatalia during the second Balkan war. The Generals noted the use of them and how difficult they were to breach in the traditional manner of a frontal assault, but didn’t learn from the experience. During World War 1 the British senior command continued to believe that a frontal assault, combined with pluck and courage, could overcome massed rifles and machine guns, to the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Senior officers, in nearly every European nation, were mainly from the aristocracy and loved cavalry,[vi] to which many of them came and continued to belong. Cavalry was the prestige arm of the services as the cost and maintenance of a horse was above the means of an enlisted man. Being an officer in the cavalry was so exclusive that only such officers could compete in the early Olympic games[vii] equestrian events.The German, French, Austrian, and Russian armies expanded their cavalries prior to 1914, in preparation for conflict. General Haig, the Supreme Commander of British forces on the Western Front came from the cavalry and sought ways to use it, even when bitter experience of its futility in the fields of France should have dictated otherwise.

While the officers were expanding the cavalry they taught the rank and file that a well led and motivated infantry would overcome any hastily constructed trenches. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 proved that fortifications were no match for artillery and that mobile defence, with large numbers of infantry manoeuvring with the support of mobile field guns, was the way forward. It was on infantry, men with magazine rifles, trained in close-order tactics and taught to accept heavy casualties, that the Generals believed would lead them to victory, with the cavalry following behind once the decisive breakthrough had been achieved.

Australia promised Britain 50,000 Europe also experienced unprecedented industrial and population growth from approximately 1880.[viii] The population in Austria and Hungary increased by approximately 35%, in Germany by 43%, 26% in Britain, and 50% in Russia. With the rise in population came increased demand for goods and services within internal and external markets. Coupled with these factors was the increased availability of transport for private or commercial use. Railway networks were fully operational within Europe and North America by 1870 while in Russia it grew from 31,000 kilometres in 1890 to 71,000 kilometres by 1910. Steamship travel and commerce had overtaken sailing ships by 1893 and international trade was of increasing importance.[ix]

Mass transport via rail and sea led to mass immigration with over twenty six million people leaving Europe for America and Australasia from 1880 to 1910. Where a town or hamlet could identify itself and its population for centuries there came new faces. These immigrants were different: they spoke a different language, had different customs, ate different foods, and posed a threat to the status quo. In a time where national identity was being fostered and promoted the migrants were easily identified by xenophobic groups and branded as not belonging. These movements of populations gave fuel to burgeoning racist ideologies.

Despite the higher military echelons failing to notice the importance of makeshift entrenchments they fully realised the importance of the railways and steamships as a means of moving large amounts of resources and men to the battlefield. They, and the politicians, also realised how the newly arrived immigrants could be used as tools to further their own ambitions, and, or, national causes.

As European, American, and Australasian populations grew they also became more educated and literate. Newspapers and magazines became more readily available. This was the era of the birth of globalisation. Goods and services from half way around the world could be purchased in the local store; news from distant places was available soon after it happened; foreign companies invested and established themselves locally, people from across the globe settled nearby, and world had become much smaller. With such rapid changes and so many alien influences the concept of of nation and nationalism grew. Foreigners were fine as long as they didn’t try to take over, other countries were fine too, as long as they didn’t hamper local growth and development, or try to take over domestic markets.


Nationalism became a political tool that soon fed upon itself. Where governments worked on building a national identity, looking for historical and social rallying points, the newly educated and literate folk began to band together to form political parties and lobby groups that either reenforced or rejected the government’s agenda. The concept of nationalism dates back, in Europe, to the Treaty of Westphalia[x] 1648, that ended the 30 years war, establishing state sovereignty. In effect the treaty allows each state to act in its own self interest unfettered by the consequences to others. Nationalism could now serve the purposes of the state, of powerful individuals and organisations, and none were scared to use the power of the press–and later electronic media–to further their causes.

Despite seeing themselves as separate nations, by treaty not interfering with each other’s internal affairs, the European governments, and their new world counterparts, could band together when it suited their purposes. They did so in Greece against the Ottomans in 1827,[xi] in Lebanon in 1860,[xii] and during the Boxer rebellion in China. Though being different nations what this band of brothers shared was a common religious base (Christianity) and cultural background dating back to Greco-Roman times. A common people when the enemy was outside of them but rivals when it wasn’t.

Inadvertently, contributing to this sense of nationalism was Charles Darwins’ discovery of the theory of evolution. It may not have suited everyone to think they descended from apes but the survival of the fittest was a fine bow for some to play on the strings of nationhood. To the Europeans, white, christian, culture was the zenith of human achievement. It was the their burden to bring enlightenment to the rest of the world, even it meant conquering those who didn’t want it. By colonising a country, it was reasoned, its people become educated and uplifted, while supplying cheap labour and raw materials to manufacturers and industry. Through the power of the press the poorest Englishman, Belgian, Frenchman, German, and any other white person knew they were better than anyone else who wasn’t white.

Darwin’s theory took hold within the tiers of European and New World societies. An expansion of Darwin’s theory was the idea of Social[xiii] Darwinism: an idea that fired the popular imagination. If species thrive they do so because they have, through natural selection, adapted to their environment while the same process weeds out the weaker of the species making it stronger overall.

If the theory works within species, logically, therefore, it should also work in societies. The social Darwinists argued there are natural leaders, either through ability or birth (both predicating superior genes), who should lead the nation while the others should follow. The concept of Social Darwinism went further; it led to Eugenics–[xiv]the self-direction of human evolution. The adherents to Eugenics believed that human evolution could be advanced by selective breeding; that the undesirable traits of humanity could be removed while the desirable can be multiplied. Eugenics was a serious business and won many adherents: Theodore Roosevelt created a national Hereditary Commission that was supposed to investigate the genetic heritage of the country. It was also to encourage the increase of families of good blood and discourage those of vicious elements in the cross-bred American civilisation. The Carnegie Institute established the Eugenics Record Office. In the United States of America, to eradicate unfit offspring sterilisation laws were passed–the first in Indiana in 1907–to better the race by allowing compulsory sterilisation, while other eugenics laws limited the right to marry. Nearly 40 years later these American laws where cited as a defence by the Nazis during the Nuremberg Trials.


The First International Eugenics Conference was in London, from July 24-29, 1912. Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin, presided over it. Over 400 delegates attended including Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty; Lord Ulverstone, the Chief Justice; Lord Balfour; Ambassadors of Norway, Greece, and France. The American Breeders’ Association also attended and demonstrated the incidence of hereditary defects in human pedigrees. Alexander Graham Bell was also an avid supporter of eugenics, and presided over its second conference in 1921. In British society, with its class structure, it was natural for the upper class to believe itself there due to superior and unsullied genetics; whereas, with the Americans and their fundamental belief in individualism and self achievement, it was that they had risen above the pack due to their superior genetics that needed be propagated.

Many of the rich and powerful were enamoured with Eugenics and how it could be applied to their nation. They viewed their genes as superior and their culture as the pinnacle. This genetic and cultural superiority filtered down and became a groundswell of popularism.[xv]

The world, by 1914, had very few frontiers left. Many politicians, leaders, and decision makers also believed it had become softer, more complacent, and idle. These people looked to their past of military vigour and saw this turn of the century generation of young men as soft and idle. The youth of empire were brought up on the heroic tales of their fathers and grandfathers who fought savages, fought foreign enemies, and had won glory despite their (usually) humble beginnings. English speaking school children had been brought up and educated on the classical Greek heroes, the heroes of Rorke’s Drift against the Zulus, of General Gordon and Khartoum, of Lord Kitchener and his conquering of the Sudan, while other nation’s children were, no doubt, taught about their national heroes.

Nationalism, Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and the need to be the primary imperial power were common currency, spanning class and social divides. Without frontiers to conquer where could young men prove their mettle? The class system of kings, queens, lords, barons, and other aristocracy was firmly established so it was nearly impossible for the common folk to rise above their station. Even for those who could through industry and commerce the social barriers still remained. For those trapped within the farms and factories of Europe to taste the life they had only read about, to visit the sites they had seen only in newspapers and magazines meant they had to somehow break out and be part of the national ideal. For those in the colonies, always aware of how they were looked down upon as not really part of the nation, it meant proving their true worth and patriotism. The Australian colonies were a good example of this as volunteers went to South Africa for the Boer war and continued to do so after Australia gained its independence.

For many of these people the memory of the European long depression–from 1873 to 1896–lingered. For the majority of folk living in cities life remained difficult, with poor wages, living conditions, and deficient housing. For small farmers and lease holders, it meant working long hours for minimal reward, or wandering as itinerant workers if they’d lost their leases and lands to unsympathetic landlords. This younger generation longed for something better but were unsure of how to achieve it. To experience different things and have opportunities to better their lot were desires unfulfilled.

Kitchener poster 2

When war broke out in August 1914 everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Wars were fought during spring and summer, not winter, as they had for hundreds of years. For young and able bodied men there was an opportunity to prove their patriotism, prove their mettle; break away from their moribund existence, defend their culture, and prove their worth against those who would destroy everything they held dear. They too believed they would be able to tell tales of heroism and adventure like their fathers and grandfathers. On the field of battle they could prove their superiority over lesser beings. Able bodied men, with their eyes focused on their future hopes, from all the belligerent nations rushed to partake in the glory this short war would bring. Sadly, the majority of them never saw the Christmas that the war was supposed to be over by.


[i]. 1. Keegan, The First World War, Hutchinson London 1998

[ii]. 2. The Australian War Memorial. awm.gov.au

[iii]. www.firstworldwar.com/bio/tirpitz.htm


[iv]. www.cityofart.net/bship/deutsch.html

[v]. naval-history.net

[vi]. Cavalry and World War One. HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web

[vii]. www.equestrianandhorse.com/shows/olympics.html

[viii]. books.google.com.au/books?isbn=1134892330

[ix]. Keegan. ibid.

[x]. www.schillerinstitute.org/strategic/treaty_of_westphalia.html

[xi]. www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/406907/Battle-of-Navarino

[xii]. www.kobayat.org/data/documents/historical/massacres1840.htm

[xiii]. autocww.colorado.edu/~toldy2/E64ContentFiles/…/SocialDarwinism.htm

[xiv]. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/static/themes/24.html

[xv]. www.eugenicsarchive.org ibid.