World War I

Causes of War:

The simple answer is that the First World War was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. He was heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire; his killer was an ethnic Serbian terrorist, a member of the Black Hand. One month afterward, Austria declared war on Serbia. A week later, Europe was at war.

The combating sides were The Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) vs. The Allies (Russia, France, and Britain). The war ended in 1918, but, as a result of the vast empires that had been built up at the turn of the century, most of the globe was involved.

There were four main factors leading to this war.

  1. The impact of eastern European nationalism.
  2. The creation of rival alliance systems
  3. The requirements of an industrialized military
  4. The “will to war”– a conviction that war provided a solution to social and cultural crises that were brewing on the domestic front.

What was the domestic crisis?

  • Re-read the information on the fin-de-siecle to see how it might have been considered an era suffering from a crisis of identity, morality, and so on

What did people think of the outbreak of war?

Very little, in comparison to the catastrophe it was about to become. Franz Kafka, on August 2, 1914, wrote in his diary: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.”

Consider the widespread argument, following 9/11, that “irony is dead.”

What is irony?

a. A figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.

2. fig. A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. (In French ironie du sort.)

How humour changed:

The more revolting it was…the more we shouted with laughter….It was …the laughter of mortals at the trick which had been played on them by an ironical fate. They had been taught to believe that the whole object of life was to reach out to beauty and love, and that mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the beast instinct, cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive, savage law of survival by tooth and claw and club and ax. All poetry, all art, all religion had preached this gospel and this promise.

Now that ideal was broken like a china vase dashed to the ground. The contrast between That and This was devastating….The war-time humor of the soul roared with mirth at the sight of all that dignity and elegance despoiled. (Gibbs qtd in  Fussell 8 )

Height requirements for the war:

At the beginning of the war, a volunteer had to stand five feet eight to get into the army. By Oct. 11, the need for men was such that the standard was lowered to five feet five. By November 5, it was five foot three (Fussell 9).

Wilfred Owen’s poem:


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen
8 October 1917 – March, 1918

World War I cemeteries were often set up on battlefields. In some cases, the order suggested by individual grave markers masks the fact that these were mass graves.

Here is how the war is remembered in the current HBO tv series, Boardwalk Empire.


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