Historical Context

By Neale Rooney

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the First World War, whether it was the Alliance system, the European arms race, or the spread of militant nationalism. Yet it was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, that undoubtedly set Europe on the road to war. The resulting July crisis saw the major powers—Germany, France, Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Italy—deliberately and carefully try to diffuse the Balkan powder keg. Austria-Hungary demanded impossible terms from its neighbour Serbia, who was blamed for supplying the Archduke’s assassins. When Serbia couldn’t deliver on these terms, Austria-Hungary, supported by Germany, went to war to ‘punish the Serbs.’

On 28 July, Serbia was invaded by Austro-Hungarian forces. Tsarist Russia, the largest Slavic neighbour to Serbia, mobilised to protect their shared people. Germany, fearful of the ‘Russian Steamroller,’ mobilised to defend her borders. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia, and then declared war on France on 3 August due to France’s established alliance with Russia. The German battle plan, the Schlieffen Plan, predicted a rapid victory against France in the west that would allow forces to be moved eastward to face the Russian enemy. To do this, German forces needed to advance through Belgium. Germany declared war on Belgium on 4 August after Belgium refused to allow German troops to cross her borders. In response to the disregard of Belgian neutrality, Britain declared war on Germany on the same day. The early battles of the First World War were a world away from the common perception of the war; troops clashed in open fields in brightly coloured uniforms, believing in the bayonet and cavalry charge. This soon ended come September 1914, as the Germans were pushed back from Paris and both sides attempted to outflank each other, leading to an opposing line stretching 400 miles from the Swiss border to the English Channel.

Germans Approach Paris

This 1918 newspaper clipping shows the German forces pushing toward Paris, a German military objective since 1914.

Modern artillery, rapid-firing rifles and machine guns lead to outlandish casualties, such as 27,000 French soldiers killed in a single day at the Battle of Charleroi on 22 August 1914. This was modern warfare. It was against this backdrop that troops were ordered to dig in and hold their ground. For four years the front lines of the Western Front would barely budge, despite colossal offensives by either side. Names of French and Belgian towns are now synonymous with the millions of soldiers struck down by shrapnel, gas, blade and bullet: Ypres, the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, and many more. The war would only grow larger, as the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria and Italy entered the conflict in 1915 and the United States of America in 1917. This is to say nothing of the efforts made by European colonies and even of the colonial war, hard-fought in the Middle East and on the African Continent. This was a global war in every sense of the word.

Seaplane

Among the technological innovations that saw heavy application in World War I was the aeroplane. In Dunkirk, seaplanes such as the one pictured were deployed liberally for reconnaissance.

It is in 1918 that Albert Woodman is stationed in Dunkirk in the north of France. The War is still raging and, while all the combatants are weary, none are ready to capitulate. British forces are recovering from the disaster at Passchendaele. The Allied commanders are preparing for a united offensive with American support to bring an end to the conflict on multiple fronts, and the Germans have ended the war in the east. It is here, in January 1918, that Woodman begins his story.