Saturday, 28 December 2013

New Year 1914: a snapshot of world events

Since most people have the conception that no one in Britain anticipated the outbreak of war in 1914, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back in time to the start of that year - from a century later - and find out what was happening in the world.  Although the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo did not occur until June, signs of the conflict to come had been recognised by politicians for at least two years prior to the events that sparked the actual outbreak of war.

The fact that I couldn't find very much at all to help me indicates that most people's conception is probably correct.  The UK on 1st January 1914 seems to have been rather a quiet place.  One of the most exciting things happening in Europe was the international rugby match between France and Ireland in Paris, kicking off a new season of the Five Nations Championship.  Ireland scored two tries to defeat the home XV in a closely-fought but low-scoring match.  However, it would be England who emerged victorious at the end of the championship, beating off all-comers, a fact that the sports-loving Siegfried Sassoon no doubt noted.

Siegfried would have been even more interested in the third Test match played by the touring England cricket team in South Africa, which also began on 1st January.  England won the toss and chose to bat.  Their opener, the great Jack Hobbs, scored 92 to help them to an almost unassailable first innings lead; their victory gave them a 3-0 lead in the series overall.

Elsewhere in the British Empire, the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria were merged into one colony - still, of course, under British rule.  The name "Nigeria" seems to have been coined by Lady Lugard, the former ''Times'' journalist Flora Shaw.  Unusually for a woman, she had travelled widely in the course of her career and had been the paper's Colonial Editor; she came up with the name some years before she married Sir Frederick Lugard, who would go on to be the Governor-General of the new merged colony.

At 8am on 1st January 1914, a crowd of about three thousand people began to gather on the jetty at St Petersburg, Florida, USA, to watch the take-off of the first commercial flight in the history of aviation. The pilot was the memorably-named Antony Habersack Jannus; his sole passenger was Abram C Phiel, the town's former mayor, who had paid $400 for a 23-minute flight to Tampa, which would normally take three hours by train.  Pilot and passenger arrived safely at their destination, and thus began a regular passenger service.

Of more interest to those with an artistic bent, perhaps, is the expiry of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which had been in operation since 1886 (coincidentally the year of Siegfried's birth).  Neither the UK nor the USA had fully signed up to the agreement, but the Liceu in Barcelona did not miss the trick.  Five minutes after the convention expired at midnight, the theatre launched its new production of Wagner's opera Parsifal, previously the exclusive preserve of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

Gustav Holst, a British composer of German and Eastern European ancestry, began composing his orchestral suite The Planets, which remains his best-known work, around this time.  Holst later denied any link between the "Mars" movement and the outbreak of war, claiming that it had been completed well before the summer's catastrophic chain of events.  The German composer Richard Strauss was simultaneously working on his score for the ballet Josephslegende, based on the Biblical story of Joseph.  It had not gone well, with Strauss remarking to a correspondent that he did not like the subject matter and composing it had been "a hell of an effort".  The work would, however, be ready by May 1914 when it was premiered at the Paris Opera. Thereafter, the choreographer Serge Diaghilev would restrict himself to working with French and Russian composers until the end of the war.

The New Year celebrations were muted for one community in South Wales.  At the Corymynydd Colliery in Cwmavon, David Howell, a widower aged 44, was crushed by a falling rock and killed instantly.  It was less than three months since the explosion at Senghenydd Colliery near Caerphilly had claimed 440 lives, the worst mining disaster in British history.  Life was hard for many in the industrial valleys, as Siegfried would witness at first hand in the post-war years when he went to Merthyr to report on the plight of striking miners.

At Christmas 1913, Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had visited his home area of Criccieth in North Wales, where a reporter from the Daily Chronicle interviewed him to find out his views on the amount the nation was spending on armaments.  "I cannot think of any advantage," said the Chancellor, "which has been reaped by any country in the world from this increase of military and naval expenditure." With a curious lack of foresight (or perhaps a desire to keep the truth from the public), he went on to comment that "our relations with Germany are infinitely more friendly now than they have been for years".

Striking miners were not a peculiarity of the British Isles.  Following a disaster when over seventy people were crushed to death at a Christmas party in Calumet, Michigan, USA, resentment against the local copper mining company remained strong and a strike that had already been going on for five months continued until April 1914; the men involved had no idea that they were likely to find themselves in an even more dangerous situation if and when the USA was dragged into the war that threatened Europe.  Their president, Woodrow Wilson, was preoccupied with the national economy, and would spend the next three years doing his best to keep his country out of the war.  He had recently made the statement (often misreported in later years)  that "the United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest".

The Americans had plenty to be optimistic about.  The Woolworth Building, New York's first skyscraper, had opened in May, the Lincoln Highway in October, and in December Ford had introduced the world's first moving assembly line.  The USA had little to gain by supporting Britain and her allies.  Thus there was plenty of popular support for Wilson's strategy, and only the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 would turn the tide of opinion against him.

On the other side of the globe, Australians had no thought of being drawn into a European war.  The progressive young country had its own problems, but the future looked bright.  Australia was even advertising for "healthy British lads of good character" to work and live there; they wanted to get away from the idea that theirs was a nation descended from convicts.  As if to demonstrate how civilised they were, they would be quick to respond to the call to arms, when it came, from their mother country.

Italy and France were at least back on friendly terms.  On 30th December 1913, the Italian government returned the Mona Lisa to its neighbours.  The painting had been stolen from the Louvre in 1911; Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso were among the suspects, but the real culprit was an Italian employee who believed that Leonardo's masterpiece belonged in its homeland.  The thief was apprehended when he tried to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence on 12th December, but the authorities took advantage of their temporary possession to ensure the Italian public had a chance to view it before handing it back to the French as a kind of New Year present.

What about the enemy?  In October, Arthur Zimmerman, Germany's deputy Foreign Minister, told Edward Goschen, Britain's ambassador in Berlin, that Austria's recent ultimatum to Serbia "might lead to serious consequences".  The Second Balkan War had concluded in the summer of 1913, with the Treaty of Bucharest.  In Serbia, the country that had gained most from that treaty, the Black Hand, effectively a terrorist organisation, was on the rise, numbering Crown Prince Alexander among its supporters.  Alexander would soon become regent, when his father, the ageing King Peter I, decided to "retire" early in 1914.

In November 1913, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the couple whose assassination seven months later would spark off the war, had been entertained at Windsor Castle by King George V and Queen Mary. Many European courts still declined to welcome the couple because the Archduke's wife, Sophie, had begun life as a commoner; theirs was a morganatic marriage.  In the same month, the elderly King Otto of Bavaria, who had for some years been confined under medical supervision at a palace in Munich, was deposed and replaced by a cousin, Ludwig III, who was stolidly pro-German.  He would be Bavaria's last king.  Among the volunteers who joined his army in early 1914 was 25-year-old Adolf Hitler.

Karl Barth, an eminent theologian born in Switzerland just a few months before Siegfried Sassoon was born at Weirleigh, had recently married and was serving as a pastor in the Reformed church.  Barth would quickly reject German Protestant liberal thinking when its proponents, such as Adolf Harnack and Wilhelm Hermann, came out in open support of the war.  His own country would remain neutral with difficulty, being forced to deploy troops the length of its border to maintain this position.

King Constantine I of Greece, who had become king following the assassination of his Danish-born father, King George I, in 1913, would have an equally difficult task in maintaining his country's neutrality. Considered a German sympathiser by the Allies, he would be forced to abdicate in 1917.  By 1939, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Germany, Turkey, and of course Russia, would all have done away permanently with their monarchies.

How the world has changed in a century!  To me, most of the events I have recounted above seem so remote as to be almost unbelievable; and yet, when leafing through The Weald of Youth, I always find myself marvelling at Siegfried Sassoon's astute observations of human nature, as relevant today as they ever were.  If only things had changed enough in the past hundred years to reassure us that World War III will never take place.
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