On the causes of the First World War

WWI was one of the most costly and the most gruesome of wars that mankind has ever seen. It was also one of the most pointless. I've just finished reading The First Casualty, a ripper of a novel by author and playwright Ben Elton. The novel is set in 1917, and much of the story takes place at the infamous Battle of Passchendaele, which is considered to have been the worst of all the many hellish battles in the war. I would like to quote one particular passage from the book, which I believe is the best summary of the causes of WWI that I've ever read:

'The question I always asks is, why did anyone give a fuck about this bleeding Archduke Ferdinand what's-his-face in the first place?' one fellow said. 'I mean, come on, nobody had even heard of the cunt till he got popped off. Now the entire fucking world is fighting 'cos of it.'

'You dozy arse', another man admonished, 'that was just a bleeding spark, that was. It was a spark. Europe was a tinder box, wasn't it? Everyone knows that.'

'Well, I don't see as how he was even worth a spark, mate,' the first man replied. 'Like I say, who'd even heard of the cunt?'

A corporal weighed in to settle the matter.

'Listen, it's yer Balkans, innit? Always yer Balkans. Balkans, Balkans, Balkans. You see, yer Austro-Hungarians—'

'Who are another bunch we never gave a fuck about till all this kicked off,' the first man interjected.

'Shut up an' you might learn something,' the corporal insisted. 'You've got your Austro-Hungarians supposed to be in charge in Sarajevo but most of the Bosnians is Serbs, right, or at least enough of 'em is to cause a t'do.'

'What's Sarajevo got to do with Bosnia then?'

'Sarajevo's in Bosnia, you monkey! It's the capital.'

'Oh. So?'

'Well, your Austrians 'ave got Bosnia, right, but your Bosnians are backed by your Serbs, right? So when a Bosnian Serb shoots—'

'A Bosnian or a Serb?'

'A Bosnian and a bleeding Serb, you arse. When this Bosnian Serb loony shoots Ferdinand who's heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Austrians think, right, here's a chance to put Serbia back in its bleeding box for good, so they give 'em an ultimatum. They says, "You topped our Archduke so from now on you can bleeding knuckle under or else you're for it." Which would have been fine except the Serbs were backed by the Russians, see, and the Russians says to the Austrians, you has a go at Serbia, you has a go at us, right? But the Austrians is backed by the Germans who says to the Russians, you has a go at Austria, you has a go at us, right? Except the Russians is backed by the French who says to the Germans, you has a go at Russia, you has a go at us, right? And altogether they says kick off! Let's be having you! And the ruck begins.'

'What about us then?' the first man enquired. The rest of the group seemed to feel that this was the crux of it.

'Entente bleeding cordiale, mate,', the corporal replied. 'We was backing the French except it wasn't like an alliance — it was just, well, it was a bleedin' entente, wasn't it.'

'An' what's an entente when it's at home?'

'It means we wasn't obliged to fight.'

'Never! You mean we didn't have to?'


'Why the fuck did we then?'

'Fuckin' Belgium.'


'That's right, fuckin' Belgium.'

'Who gives a fuck about Belgium?'

'Well, you'd have thought no one, wouldn't you? But we did. 'Cos the German plan to get at the French was to go through Belgium, but we was guaranteeing 'em, see. So we says to the Germans, you has a go at Belgium, you has a go at us. We'd guaranteed her, see. It was a matter of honour. So in we came.'

Kingsley could not resist interjecting.

'Of course it wasn't really about honour,' he said.

'Do what?' queried the corporal.

'Well, we'd only guaranteed Belgium because we didn't want either Germany or France dominating the entire Channel coast. In the last century we thought that letting them both know that if they invaded Belgium they'd have us to deal with would deter them.'

'But it didn't.'

'Sadly not.'

'So what about the Italians, an' the Japs, an' the Turks, an' the Yanks, eh? How did they end up in it?' asked the original inquisitor.

'Fuck knows,' said the corporal. 'I lost track after the Belgians.'

Ben Elton (2005), 'The First Casualty', Ch. 36: 'A communal interlude', Bantam Press, pp. 206-208.

And if I'm not mistaken, that pretty well sums it up. I remember studying WWI, back in high school. Like so many other students of history, I couldn't help but notice the irony of it — the sheer and absurd stupidity of an entire continent (supposedly the most advanced in all the world, at the time), falling like a pack of dominoes and descending into an all-out bloodbath. It would have been funny, were it not for the fact that half the young men of early 20th-century Europe paid for it with their lives.

It would have been great if they'd simply told me to read this, instead of having me study and memorise the ridiculous chain of events that led up to the Great War. 'Russia declares war on Austria', 'Germany declares war on Russia', 'France declares war on Germany', etc. I've also finally unravelled the mystery of how the hell it was that us Aussies managed to get roped into the war, and of how the hell our most sacred event of national heritage involved several thousand of our Grandads getting mowed down by machine-guns on a beach in Turkey. I guess we fall into the category of: 'Fuck knows... I lost track after the Belgians.'

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