Rorate Caeli

"The Guns of August Still Rumble" - I

Memorial Tablet in the Cathedral of Marseille, France
Today is the 100th anniversary of the entrance of the British Empire as a belligerent power in the general European conflagration of 1914, the last of the major powers to do so, turning it into a completely global war. From Australia and New Zealand to India and South Africa to Newfoundland and Canada, and including a burning Ireland, the world was at war.

We begin today a series with excerpts of Italian historian Roberto de Mattei's major article on the centenary of that conflict that created the world in which we live today.

The Guns of August Still Rumble
(Part I)
by Roberto de Mattei
for Il Foglio
(excerpts )

(Part II here)

One hundred years later, are the rumbling guns of August, still echoing in European skies, able to offer us a lesson from history?
At the dawn of the first day of January 1914, Europe was deep in the easy-going opulence of the Belle époque and still confident in a radiant future for humanity. Civilization, modernity and progress were synonyms. The 20th century had opened with the ingenuous presumption of having once and for all left behind the evils and errors that had afflicted mankind since original sin. 

Winston Churchill recalls in his “Memoirs” that “the spring and summer of 1914, in Europe, were characterized by exceptional tranquility” (The World Crisis ( 1911-1918), Macmillan, London 1943, p.103). Who could have imagined that the assassination of the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, would have inaugurated an era of death and destruction on a worldwide scale?

Yet, after the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne’s killing on the 28th June 1914, Europe, in the space of a month, plummeted into an immense catastrophe. From 1914 to 1918 the best youth of Europe bled to death in fratricidal combat. Almost nine million men were missing by the end of this global conflagration. In the history of conflicts which have always accompanied human events, The First World War occupies a central place, not only for its extension world-wide and terrifying number of victims, but most of all for the newness and intensity of the ideological hate among peoples, which built up in the rival trenches.

The attack alone between Soissons and Compiègne on the the 16th April 1917 cost one hundred and seventeen thousand deaths to gain five kilometers; three hundred and sixty thousand were the French victims in the first offensive battle at Verdun in October 1916. Emilio Gentile who dedicated an excellent book to “The Apocalypse of Modernity" (Oscar Mondadori, Milan 2014) asserts that “hate and horror became universal during the Great War, in a way perhaps that had never happened before in the history of mankind.” (p. 18). 

The French historian Jean de Viguerie demonstrates how the traditional doctrine of a “just war” , by its nature defensive, was substituted in 1914-18 by a new conception of war - offensive, total and incessant, with its roots in the French Revolution (Les deux patries. Essai historique sur l’idee de patrie en France, Dominique Martin Morin, Boère 204). The first global conflict, was in this sense, a continuation of that call to arms launched on the 11th of July 1792, when the National Assembly proclaimed “the country is in danger”. The rallying cry “destroy the enemy”, both internal and external, originated with the French Revolution, and as happened with the “infernal columns” between 1793 and 1794 which wiped out the insurgents at the Vendee.

Started as a conflict between the great powers, the Great War was transformed into a new type of conflict, which made it a “global civil war” or as it has also been defined, a “world revolution” (Lawrence Sonhaus, First World War, The Global Revolution, It. tr., Einaudi Turin 2014). The protagonists of the conflict were overwhelmed by an inexorable dynamic, which pushed them towards war. The assassination in Sarajevo was simply the spark that detonated the conflagration, but the deeper reasons for this war cannot be limited to the French-German tensions related to the borders on the Rhineland nor the political and economical competition between England and Germany.

After the killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, planned in Belgrade , Austria wanted to give a lesson to Serbia. Berlin promised its support to Vienna. France assured its backing to the Russian presence in the Balkans. The French President Poincarè was certain that Vienna and Berlin would never have risked challenging the French-Russian alliance, and he was able to assure the support of Great Britain, which had also held secret negotiations with Russia against Turkey. Austria and Germany, by contrast, were convinced that the war would have remained at a local level and that England had no interest at all in dragging itself into a war caused by an Austrian- Russian conflict in the Balkans.

In the afternoon of Thursday the 23rd July, Austria gave the Serbian government an ultimatum which was judged inacceptable. On the 28th July the Austro-Hungarian Emperor declared war on Serbia and bombed Belgrade. On the 30th July, Czar Nicholas II succumbed to the pressure of his generals and signed an order of general mobilization, which in the optics of that era, was equal to a declaration of war against Austria. 

On the 31st July the German government sent an ultimatum to Russia, inviting a halt to the bellicose preparations along with an ultimatum to France, asking what their stance would be in the case of war between Russia and Germany. Faced with Russia’s refusal to stop mobilization, Germany declared war on the 1st August. A few minutes before, France had also issued orders for a general mobilization. On the 3rd of August Germany declared war against France and the German troops invaded Belgium and Luxemburg. The following day Great Britain entered the war against the German Empire; on the 6th of August Austro-Hungary declared war on Russia. On the 11th and 12th of August France and England declared war on Austro-Hungary. The sound of the cannons began to thunder all over Europe.

[Translation by contributor Francesca Romana.]