Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

July 1914: the Summer Before the Storm

For anyone interested in modern European history or the First World War, July 25th represents the collapse of the house of cards that was European diplomacy in 1914. Germany’s first Chancellor, Otto von Bismark once remarked, “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” He couldn’t have been more correct. Before proceeding, here is brief re-cap of the events leading up to 25th of July:  the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Austria-Hungary retaliates by demanding the extradition of the leaders of the Black Hand (organizers of the assassination), Serbia turns up the ante by requesting assistance from the Russian empire, and finally, Austria’s delivers an ultimatum to Serbia. Austria had given Serbia very few options, either humiliation or fight.

Modris Eksteins’ classic book, The Rites of Spring, paints an excellent picture how July 1914 was an abnormal summer. Conventionally, European politicians put international and domestic issues on hold. Typically men in suits fled the soot ridden capital cities of Paris, London and Berlin for coastal towns like Blackpool or Marseilles. Yet the summer of 1914 was different. The Kaiser cut short his annual yacht cruise of the Rhine. British politicians in bowler hats stayed in the London. Ordinary Germans also avoided the seaside, preferring to await military mobilization orders.

Credit: Peterborough Examiner, 1914
But what was life like in Peterborough during these anxious days of July 1914? What were the average resident’s thoughts on the crisis of European alliances? If newspapers are a reflection of popular public opinion, then we can safely assume that war was not on the minds of locals. After looking at the 25 July 1914 edition of the Examiner, it becomes evident that picnics, church sermons, local camping excursions to Stoney lake with school children from Pennsylvania were more pressing issues. Internationally, Peterborough was more concerned with the crisis of Irish rebellion and Home Rule than some “damned silly thing in the Balkans.” A big local stories for press included the report of the removal of a gang of local Gypsies and dodgy fortune tellers from the city's streets. Only at the bottom of the front page was there any mention of how Europe stood on the brink of war caused by Austria’s ultimatum to tiny Serbia.

It is almost bittersweet to look back at this pre-war period. They didn't see it coming. It is the end of the Edwardian period and the birth of the modern age. In 2 weeks’ time, the Dominion of Canada would be at war, and the local Armouries would send off hundreds of men overseas, many of the enlisted recruits would never return, and many of those who did come back, did not come back mentally whole.

The British Statesman Sir Edward Grey, said it best when overlooking London after it had been resolved that Britain would declare war on Germany. As he watched the last night that the gas lights were being lit in peacetime, he wrote: “The lights are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

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