A single bullet sparked World War One.
Just one single gunshot lead to the mobilisation of 65,038,810 forces.
One death led to 8,528,831 others.
That’s 37,466,904 casualties that were counted. 274,111 Anzacs.
It doesn’t include the 7,750,919 men that didn’t return home because they were prisoners, or simply were never seen again.
That’s 45,217,823 men that didn’t go home without injury.
19,820,987 men were the lucky few who only lost their minds and hearts on those battle fields.
Just one bullet.
But of course, history has never made a simple mistake. It made many. These soldiers were the creators of history. Their letters, poems, seemingly insignificant memories are what we remember them by. Sad, lost, boys who left home looking for a sense of adventure, and gained far more than they needed. Understanding the reasons behind such catastrophic casualty rates is like trying to understand why a butterfly can fly: there isn’t a reason so much as it could. It could fly so it did. The war could happen, so it did. But looking into the process of a flying butterfly, of the creation of war, is where it gets interesting.
We all know a butterflies cycle. The first step is the egg. Now a butterfly egg is quite small and seems rather insignificant compared to the other stages of the cycle, but it is the beginning, and therefore one of the most important. German aggression was the egg of the war. Kaiser Wilhelm the second was the king of Germany, and had a twisted view of the world. He believed Germany should be a world power, and thereby introduced Weltpolitik to achieve this. The policies of Weltpolitik varied, but together they produced an arms race. This was where Germany wanted to try and get more land to seem more powerful, and the only way to do that was to take it from other people. So Germany tried to take more land, and everyone else tried to protect theirs and get more themselves, thus causing an arms race where everyone tried to get bigger guns to both protect their country and use it to get rid of anyone who tried to stop them taking other land. This led to the development of the Schlieffen plan, where Germany attempted to invade France and take Alsace Lorraine, a strip of land between the two counties. In theory this was a good plan. As Germany is a landlocked country, shutting down one border would mean they would only have to fight on one side rather than two if war were to break out. However, the execution of this plan went a bit pear shaped, and resulted in France getting angry at Germany, who didn’t get the land, and had to fight even harder on two fronts. So the egg of the war was been planted, and the European countries were both angry, and wanted to show off their guns to prove how much of a world power they were – a deadly combination.
The second part of the cycle is the caterpillar. A bug with lots of legs that can move and eat and meet other caterpillars like itself. The caterpillar is a strange creature, much like a human. Of course, we’re not 5 centimetres long, green and yellow striped, with too many legs, but we share the quality of strangeness and predictable unpredictable-ness. Almost everyone ever born has a certain patriotic streak for their country. If not the country you were born in, then certainly one you grew up in or spent a while exploring. Patriotism is good. Patriotism is the reason so many soldiers stalked the dead men before them into such a blood and bodied wasteland. But nationalism is not. Nationalism is the extremity of patriotism, where people put down other countries to make their own sound better. The anger and resentment was widespread across Europe, and it wasn’t long before nationalism seeped into education and literature. The effects of these were not positive. Children were being brought up in a society that openly degraded and blamed other nations for their own failures. French children were told Germany had tried to steal their two children: Alsace and Lorraine, while Germans were taught that they were surrounded by enemies who could not be trusted. These ideas meant the generations were bred to despise each other, and never looked upon each other kindly. This would only fuel the war further. Literature romanticised war, and encouraged the ideology that war was a good thing, and would quickly and effectively solve disputes between nations. They explained that war was a necessity for history, and further for the developments of mankind. It started the ideas of nationalism which were further promoted by newspapers. Newspapers often stretched the truth for publicity, and brought an intensity to the idealisation of of war. Nationalism was the moving, growing, evolving caterpillar for the war.
The third stage of the cycle is the cocoon, where the caterpillar winds itself up into a little comfortable pouch, and develops into a glorious butterfly. However, as an analogy for war, this stage is closely linked to the relationships, alliances, and diplomacy that developed in the years leading to the war, as this is where it’s developments and creation finally start to develop. The first was the French/German rivalry that developed after the dire attempt of invasion by German forces: the Schlieffen plan. The relationship between these two nations was not at its best. The second was the triple entente, an alliance between France, Russia, and England, something that shocked Germany because France was known for being indecisive about what side they were on: a quality the English had a strong distaste for. However, although Germany was mad, they still decided to create the dual alliance with Austria-Hungary, because neither country stood any chance against the triple entente. This further led to the third development, the treaty of London. This treaty was between England and Belgium, whereby Britain swore to protect Belgium as it was a neutral country.
This of course led to the butterfly. On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (the son of the emperor of Austria-Hungary) was shot dead in Sarajevo by six Serbian assassins. The reason for his death was an attempt to break off Austria-Hungary’s South Slav provinces so they could be combined into a Yugoslavia. Austria-Hungary was mad at Serbia for this, and after much debate over the punishment of the assassins, Serbia decided to begin an invasion by mobilising its army. They sent a few members of their military across the river between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, while the Austro-Hungarian soldiers fired warning shots. Austria-Hungary then declared war and mobilised its army, and due to the Dual Alliance, Germany was obliged to support Austria-Hungary in these endeavours. However, under the Secret Treaty of 1892, Russia and France were forced to mobilise their armies if any member of the Triple Entente mobilised. As Russia was such a strong world power, their mobilisation was reacted to by Austria-Hungary and Germany by full mobilisations. It wasn’t long before all of the great world powers had picked sides and gone to war. Except Italy.
So I suppose all that is left is the flight of that poor innocent butterfly. As it opens its heavy, brightly coloured wings for the first time, it’s potential is still unknown. But for World War One? It was the greatest war, the bloodiest battle, one of the worst periods of history that the world had ever seen.
By Dharma Bratley