The guns of August echo loudly today

Soldiers advance during the 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive in France.  The mechanized slaughter of World War I shaped Western culture and the world map for the century that followed.
Soldiers advance during the 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive in France. The mechanized slaughter of World War I shaped Western culture and the world map for the century that followed. AP Photo

A century ago, an assassination opened the floodgates of horror

World War I - or the Great War as it was called at the time - began one century ago this month. A cataclysm of unimaginable proportions, it raged across Europe, Africa, and Asia and even touched the Americas. Never before had humankind experienced such wholesale destruction; it was the world's first encounter with total war.

History has given the Great War short shrift, eclipsed by World War II and subsequent conflicts. The participants are all gone now, their accounts limited to words on a page, recorded interviews, or the mute testimony of millions of marked and unmarked graves. Nevertheless, the legacy of that struggle and the "peace" that followed haunt us still.

It started out as a pinprick, little more than a back-page newspaper item: the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Habsburg archduke, Franz Ferdinand, had been felled by a Bosnian assassin's bullet in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914. The Balkans, for centuries a part of the now-crumbling Turkish Ottoman Empire, had won independence, only for Bosnia and Herzegovina to be quickly annexed by Austria Hungary. Few, though, outside Eastern Europe paid much attention to the incident: peace had lulled Europe for 40 years since the Franco-Prussian War; great technological innovations and improvements in the quality of living bedazzled and beckoned to good fellowship the citizens of a new and finer world.

Life was good; who would want war?

Yet even as it mourned the death of its heir apparent, Austria plotted revenge against Serbia, believed to be behind the assassination. Receiving an informal go-ahead from its neighbor and closest ally Germany, the Austro-Hungarian government delivered an ultimatum to Serbia no sovereign nation could accept. Meanwhile, Serbia's patron, Russia, would not countenance threats against her protégé. The great powers of Europe began to line up: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey on one side; Russia, France, and eventually Great Britain and Italy on the other.

Still, Europe's emperors and monarchs seemed confident they could avert a major confrontation. Many went on summer holiday.

But when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, any hope of containment was destroyed. Like tumbling dominoes, in rapid succession Germany declared war on Russia, then on France and Belgium. By Aug. 4, England had entered the fray. Drawn into the conflict were Colonial territories in far-flung parts of the world. Three years later, the United States declared war on Germany and Austria Hungary, "to make the world safe for democracy."

Thus, a titanic battle that the world could have avoided rocketed with horrifying savagery across the globe.

Europe would see by far the worst of the destruction, centered on the Western Front, a 450-mile-long series of Allied and German mud-saturated trenches, from Belgium to Switzerland, separated by a killing field known as No Man's Land. So many young men who had idealistically joined what they believed was a noble crusade came to hate not just the enemy, but the cause itself and its architects who had so mercilessly marched them off to those killing fields.

World War I introduced dazzling, murderous technologies that would be developed and deployed over the remainder of the 20th century and into the 21st: fighter planes, submarines, tanks, aircraft carriers, mines, barrage-fire, aerial bombing, and chemical warfare.

The art, music and literature of the war and postwar years retain their power to evoke deep emotions. Coined then were now-commonplace phrases like "over the top," "cushy," "dog fight," "blind spot," and "over there." Future military and political leaders won their spurs in the Great War: Bernard Montgomery, George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur; Harold Macmillan, Harry Truman - and Adolf Hitler.

It all came to a head so fast that no one, it seems, foresaw the impending disaster. But that war and the injurious peace that followed have affected - and in a sense afflicted - the world ever since, with totalitarian despotisms of all stripes, nationalistic uprisings in the Balkans, tribal sectarianism across the Mideast, failed post-colonial dictatorships in Africa. These are the tragic legacies of the Great War.

W.B. Yeats, in his apocalyptic postwar poem "The Second Coming," painted a terrifying vision of the monstrous offspring begotten by this hideous new form of combat:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In commemorating the first volleys of July 28, 1914, even as we honor the dead of the Great War, we have a responsibility to apply its terrible lessons, and their continuing implications, to our own time.

Anne Carr Bingham lives in Salem.

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