101 years ago today, World War One’s infamous Western Front was opened. The war had been going for a week or so. The month following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand became known as the July Crisis, due to the tension centered around Austria-Hungary’s demands on Serbia. At the end of that month (29 July), Belgrade was shelled. It was the start of the 113th war Belgrade had appeared in. However, in those final days of July, there may have been some hope that the hostilities would not extend past the region and would pass as being a third Balkan War. Those hopes would surely dwindle on the first day of August as Germany declared war on Russia as other nations started to mobilize. This was an escalation, to be sure, but was still not of a scope Then, on Aug 3, despite the fact that Britain was willing to emerge from its “splendid isolation” should Belgium’ neutrality be violated, Germany rolled the dice and declared war on France. The next day, on Aug 4, German troops cross the Belgian border and start the siege of Liège. This violation of Belgium’s neutrality would be the reason (or excuse, if you prefer) for Britain to enter the war. The “rape of Belgium” was also used to drum up public support in both the Great Britain and elsewhere.
If Britain had not entered (and brought its empire and commonwealth along), the war would have looked very different and although it is doubtful anyone would have made it home by Christmas (no one ever does, but that line always sends ships sailing off to war), the Western Front would undoubtedly turned out different. However, speculation is of limited value in looking at the events of the past. The fact remains that Britain would jump into the fray, and, ultimately, be joined by many more nations.
Wondering whether those nations would have joined is not where this anniversary leads me. Today, as I consider that the cascade of entries into the Great War started 101 years ago today, I come to think that, in some ways, Aug 4 marks the start of the World War One. On this day, Germany declared war on, and invaded, Belgium. Germany also signed a deal with the Ottoman Empire on this day. By the end of the day, Great Britain had declared war on Germany. It would seem that a war (or anything else of a finite duration), has to start at some point in time. Today, I think that Aug 4, the day on which Great Britain, a power that was not part of the original dispute in the Balkans marks a good a point as any.
On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. A war between those two might be war for sure, but certainly not a world war. Even Germany’s declaration against Russia a couple of days later could still be seen as expansion of that Balkan War into a widened regional conflict. Going back a month before that, we arrive at the event that many people today would answer with when asked “when did World War One start?” with answer along the lines of “when Franz Ferdinand was shot”. Even though it predates any declarations or acts of war by a month the citing of Ferdinand’s assassination as the start of the war makes sense also. It has been cited as the point of no return or the push that got the boulder rolling down the hill. It makes as much sense and is as valid as saying that World War One started on Aug 4. The day on which a war is declared may be useful as marker of the beginning of a war for some questions, but not for others. Eventually, these “pre-official” events must find their way to the category of “roots” or “causes” and events after the first hostilities must get placed in “developments”. But, in thinking about the question “when did World War One begin?” I am left with the realization that determining when a war starts is not a clear cut task. To say that World War One started in the 1880’s with the Berlin Conference when the European powers figured out how they would carve up Africa is a stretch, but maybe not by much.. At some point some rabble rousing became the American Revolution. And there was quite a bit of bleeding in Kansas before shots were fired on Fort Sumter. Of course, this exercise of straying off of the fixed point of a declaration of war, invasion, or other easily identified event has its limits. Going back to far becomes meaningless. However, giving some consideration to the questions “when did this war become inevitable?” or “what larger conflict or movement was that war part of” or “when did that other war morph from one thing to another” is worthwhile in that it helps us look at these conflicts as not as things to know facts about, but rather as phenomenon to ask questions of that we may learn from them.