One hundred years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. For all intents and purposes the First World War, or the Great War, had begun. Though of course at the time many hoped it might still be avoided.
In the past weeks at work, a number of film and news crews have been turning up and working on projects to mark the centenary for the start of the war. One of the most recent crews conducted an interview in which they asked me if I thought the men knew what they were fighting for. I honestly don’t know that they did. How could they, if I can’t easily answer what they were fighting for myself?
An Archduke is assassinated in the Balkans and some months later England goes to war with Germany, bringing all its colonies and dominions with it. Trenches were dug across Europe and their lines would barely move for four years. When it all ended they said it was the war to end all wars, but it wasn’t.
What I’ve found in past months is that my role is very much to focus on the what and the how. What happened here, and how was it done? What was happening before, and what came next? I deal in facts, and the facts are tragic. I get asked questions like how many casualties, how long were the tunnels, how many trenches, how long did it all take to build? I don’t get asked why, and ultimately I don’t think that’s what I’m there for.
When it comes down to it, I doubt there is any answer that will justify it all. All our memorials and ways of remembrance focus on commemorating sacrifice and celebrating the courage of those we lost while lamenting the fact that either were necessary.
In the end, the war that followed soon after the assassination seems about as senseless as the assassination itself. I never understand how anyone comes to the conclusion that a murder will solve the problem that motivates them. I suppose it stands to reason I would understand the purpose of killing on a mass scale for any stated reason even less.
Yesterday in Ieper, I visited Tyne Cot Cemetery. The largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world – all from the First World War. The information on the plaque at the entrance is staggering.
As for the reason why this sort of memorial is necessary – one grave there in particular bears an inscription which speaks volumes more than I’ve managed in this confused and meandering post.