The Centenary of World War I

Next year marks the centenary of the beginning of World War I.  On the pretext of Serbia being responsible for the assassination of the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones in June 1914, Austria invaded Serbia on 28th July.   Austria thought that the small Serbian Army would be no match for the might of the Austrian Hungarian Empire and that little Serbia could be quickly defeated before its ally Russia could enter the fray. This was the first big mistake of the war. Russia was more than ready to fight. She mobilised immediately. Germany came to the aid of Austria and Germany and the Austrian Hungarian Empire declared war against Russia on 1st August 1914.

The second big mistake of the War was that Germany thought the armies of the Austrian Hungarian Empire could hold back and defeat the Russians. However, at no point of the war were the armies of Franz Joseph capable of holding the Eastern Front. Russia was able to drive the invading armies from its land and March into Silesia (now part of Poland). It was only with Germany assistance that the Eastern Front was held and Russia was only defeated when it crumbled during the 1917 revolution.

Then there was the optimism of Germany. Surely the mighty German army could race through Belgium and attack France without major opposition?  This move was thought  necessary because Germany feared that France would attack first to recover Alsace and Lorraine which was ceded to Germany following the Franco-Prussian War.   The skirmish would be quick and Germany’s southern boundary would be safely secured. All did not go according to plan. When the first German troops entered Belgium, its ally England declared war. When England declared war, its dominions, including Australia, also declared war. Thus France was supported and the little skirmish became bogged down into a stalemate. This was the Western Front, a bloody battle field 700 kilometres long stretching from the Swiss border to the North Sea.

The biggest mistake, however, was the belief, firmly held by all sides, that the war would be over by Christmas, 1914.In the beginning,  hundreds of thousands of young men though the War  an adventure and a chance to express their loyalty to King and country.   Instead, for over four years opposing sets of trenches faced each other, sometimes only a few metres apart. Young men slaughter other young men in mountains, deserts and muddy quagmires. For weeks at a time they eked out an existence under constant bombardment amidst mud, stench, fear and disease.    Approximately 65 million men fought in World War I. By the time it ended in November 1918, about 10 million of them had died and another 20 million had been wounded. This was a generation of young people, mostly single and in the 20’s.

At the beginning of the war, Australians flocked to volunteer to fight in Australia’s armed forces. Ours was such a young country with a population of about 4.5 million people. Yet 416 809 of its citizens enlisted.  By war’s end, over 61,000 Australian’s had died, over 166,000 were wounded, more that 4000 had become prisoners of war and a further 88,000 suffered from disease or illness. This was an extraordinary sacrifice for such a young country.   After the war those who survived were expected to immediately pick up the pieces of the former lives. To marry, work and have children.  Many had gone to war directly from school. They had missed out on the skills and training necessary to equip then for successful and productive employment.  Many not completely recovered from their wounds and many more had been mentally affected by their war experiences. All, in one way or another, would carry scars from the war for the rest of their lives.

During the next few years we will be reminded of the horrific statistics, the battle grounds, the rows of crosses and the war memorials that dot every town and suburb in Australia. But we should try to translate the statics into human being, young men like those we know today. Young people with hopes and ambitions, the larrikins, the lovers, husbands, fathers and sons…… Let’s give those who went to war a face and personality. Then we can truly remember them.

Over the next five years a part of this webpage will be dedicate to  those who participated in World War I.  It will feature stories about those who fought overseas. It will include stories of heroes, accounts of how diggers settled into civilian life after the war and of contribution made to the War effort by those who stayed at home.  The site will also feature links to other WebPages with similar aims.

Why not join the effort to document the experiences of Australian during the First World War?  If you have a family member with a story please contact me here to have it included on this site.  During the next few years let us convert the statistics; the names on all those memorials into human beings. Please help with this endeavour. Lest we forget.

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