Wednesday, April 12, 2017

PBS' World War I Special Is A Must -See For All History Buffs

My Great-grandfather, left, after conscription into the Austro-Hungarian Army some eight months after the onset  of World War I. An Austrian officer stands next to him in this 1915 photo.

 World War I appears to be the one major war off the radar of most people, though it shouldn't be. To be blunt, the level of catastrophic loss of life was mind boggling. For example, in the Battle of Verdun alone there were more than 714, 000 casualties. As per a Wikipedia summary:

"The total number of deaths includes about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Triple Entente (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million military personnel while the Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead. This article lists the casualties of the belligerent powers based on official published sources."

These figures are confirmed by Oxford historian Sir Martin Gilbert, in his thorough examination of the war entitled 'The First World War' which I've just begun reading.  My interest in the "Great War" - as it was called- harkens back to the fact that my maternal great grandfather (Anton) was involved in it. As a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Anton was obliged to enter service sometime in early 1915.  (As readers may know, World War I was triggered when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June, 1914. )

Fortunately, as the threat of war heated up between Austria -Hungary and Serbia in early 1914, Anton encouraged  oldest son Joseph to leave the homeland, to avoid conscription into the Austrian Army. Thereby, Joseph - under his father's watchful eyes- left Cabuna, Croatia at the age of 15, on March 19, 1914 - buying a ticket in Zagreb, then traveling by train to a port in Antwerp, Belgium where he boarded a ship ('Kroonland') which docked at Ellis Island, New York, on Good Friday, April 12, 1914.

Thus, today is the 103rd  anniversary of my maternal grandfather's arrival as an immigrant in this country.  His arrival was barely two months before the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, at the hands of Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist and member of the "Black Hand".

All these facts drove my interest to learn more about this War: not only how it started but who participated and how it evolved to the horrendous bloodletting documented by Sir Martin Gilbert. He sums it up in perhaps the most elegant and succinct way as the clash "between five empires".  That is, five distinct empires existed at the time, competing for resources including sea ports. (The heating up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand included Austrian blocking of Serbian access to the sea)

The five empires that ended  up at war were: The British Empire, the French Empire, The Russian Empire (under Czar Nicholas Alexander), the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian (or simply Austrian Empire)  "created out of the realms of the Habsburgs by proclamation in 1804. It was a multinational empire and one of Europe's great powers. Geographically it was the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire (621,538 square kilometres [239,977 sq mi]). It was also the third most populous after Russia and France, as well as the largest and strongest country in the German Confederation."  (According to Wikipedia)

Sir Gilbert notes that the War might have been avoided had a letter of apology from Serbia (for the assassination) been received in time by the Austrians. But it was not. Then, Austria declared war on Serbia. As the War unfolded the Germans united with the Austrians (German Confederation) and with the Ottoman Turks comprised the Central Powers  to face off against the Triple Entente or "Allies" defined by the British, French and Russia.  Recall  these allegiances were all manifest by the summer of 1914 and the U.S. itself did not enter the War until the spring of 1917.  This was massively driven by the sinking of the Lusitania with the loss of dozens of American lives.

A noteworthy final point is that all the empires engaged in the Great War ended up in the dustbin of history in the aftermath. The British Empire went into its twilight, then crumbled as more and more colonies established independence (including Barbados in 1966), the French and German empires splintered as did the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire was overthrown by the Bolsheviks with the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The PBS documentary "The Great War" deals with all these aspects, and the first instalment - Monday night -  mainly focused on the early stages as I described them above.  The next two instalments - the last of which is to be televised tonight - deal with the American participation in the War, as well as the unintended consequences of becoming a proto-military industrial state that has defined U.S. identity ever since - being further reinforced with World War II.

Anyone seriously interested in history (and that ought to include White House spokesman Sean Spicer) should try to see this excellent documentary which is also available online ( if you missed the first two programs.  See, e.g.

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