Many of my columns are pretty light in tone and content as I generally aim to amuse as well as enlighten readers. This is not one of those columns.
In the land of my birth one hundred years ago this week, on Aug. 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. According to Max Hastings’ book “Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914” a “combination of mishaps resulted in the assassination of a disliked man and his wife in a remote place on Europe’s edge which plunged the entire continent into an unmatched hell of slaughter for four years.”
Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the imperial throne of Austria and Hungary and his wife were killed by a wimpy 19 year old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip as they toured Sarajevo in an open car. Within six weeks Austria invaded Serbia in retaliation. Soon Russia would take Serbia’s side and Germany would mobilize armies to support Austria. Germany’s military strategy was based on a simple premise: to thrash the French army in the West quickly before turning to face the Russians slowly assembling in the East (much as Hitler would attempt to do a quarter of a century later). The German Kaiser marched his armies first into Belgium and Luxembourg aiming for Paris but the French rallied to meet them and the British were drawn in.
In patriotic fervour many thought that the war would be over by Christmas 1914. Instead, it lasted four and a half agonizing years, involved 70 million soldiers and cost over 15 million lives. It would see the map of Europe redrawn, a violent revolution in Russia, and social upheaval everywhere as the US emerged as a new global power in a new world.
When World War I erupted in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson pledged neutrality for the United States, a position that the vast majority of Americans favored. Britain, however, was one of America’s closest trading partners, and tension soon arose between the United States and Germany over the latter’s attempted quarantine of the British Isles. Several U.S. ships travelling to Britain were damaged or sunk by German mines, and in February 1915 Germany announced unrestricted warfare against all ships, neutral or otherwise, that entered the war zone around Britain which famously led to the torpedoing of the Lusitania ocean liner, killing many American citizens on board. Public opinion in the United States began to turn irrevocably against Germany but it would be another two years until Germany, determined to win its war of attrition against the Allies, announced the resumption of unrestricted warfare in war-zone waters. After just three days, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany, and hours later the American liner Housatonic was sunk by a German U-boat.
On Feb. 22, Congress passed an arms appropriations bill intended to make the United States ready for war. In late March, Germany sunk four more U.S. merchant ships, and President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany. His request was granted four days later, on April 6, 1915.
In June 1915, the first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France to begin training for combat. After four years of bloody stalemate along the western front, the entrance of America’s well-supplied forces into the conflict marked a major turning point in the war and helped the Allies to victory. When the war finally ended, on November 11, 1918, more than two million American soldiers had served on the battlefields of Western Europe, and some 50,000 of them had lost their lives.
Sadly, this week also marks the anniversary of the death of a local hero. Five years ago Matthew Freeman gave his life to protect his country.
I was never lucky enough to meet Matt who was clearly a remarkable young man but I have met his family and deeply admire how they have turned their grief into something positive. I encourage you to visit www.freemanproject.org to learn about and donate to this great charity.
I am going to leave you with two quotes — originating from each of the countries I love. The first ‘The Ode of Remembrance’ is taken from the poem ‘For The Fallen’ by the British poet Laurence Binyon, first published in The London Times in September 1914 just as news of the high casualty rates of the British Expeditionary Forces on the developing Western Front was breaking. Over time, this part of the poem has become an important part of the British tradition and, almost 100 years later; it is read at the Belgian War Memorial at Ypres every evening at 8 p.m. by a British serviceman:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
The second is much shorter and has become a famous American saying, engraved onto the Korean War Memorial in Washington DC, and widely attributed to retired United States Air Force Colonel Walter Hitchcock. It expresses thanks, admiration and respect to the men and women of our armed forces, and provides a reminder that we owe our free society to these brave Americans who sometimes pay the ultimate price. It is simple, eloquent, and thought-provoking:
“Freedom isn’t free.”
Thank you Matthew Freeman and all those who have gone before and after him. We will always remember you. God bless America and all of the free world.
Contact Francis at email@example.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com