When Europe went to war

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‘No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening,’ wrote Winston Churchill of the world-changing events that took place 110 years ago this summer, as Europe’s ‘Great Powers’ found themselves sliding inexorably towards a new type of conflict. ‘The measured, silent drawing together of gigantic forces, the uncertainty of their movements and positions, the number of unknown and unknowable facts made the first collision a drama never surpassed.’

More than a century on, interest in this extraordinary drama shows few signs of fading — as new generations ask themselves, how could Europe’s leaders have allowed such a thing to happen? How could a continent that had for so long prided itself on its so-called ‘civilisation’ sleepwalk into a conflagration that would claim the lives of between 15 and 22 million soldiers and civilians over the following four years?

Such interest is not purely historical, of course. For inside this complex tale of imperial rivalries and short sighted diplomatic blundering, many are tempted to discern a parable with enduring relevance to the world we live in today. That is why the US President John F Kennedy famously found inspiration at the height of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s celebrated account of the outbreak of World War I. And it is why the events of that far-off summer of 1914 are still referred to even today by those who warn of the dangers of escalating conflicts around the world, from Ukraine to the Middle East.

In our special two-part feature in this issue to mark the 110th anniversary of the First World War, Graham Goodlad looks first at how Europe’s alliances broke down as the continent lurched closer to catastrophe, and then analyses in detail the ‘Miracle of the Marne’ — the key early battle, fought in September 1914, that saved Paris and checked the German advance, but in doing so set the course for four long years of bitter conflict.

This is an extract from a special feature on The First World War from the August/September 2024 issue of Military History Matters magazine.

Read the full article online on The Past, or in the print magazine: find out more about subscriptions to Military History Matters here.

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