The Great War – Because of One Man

By Pete Mecca on the 100 Anniversary of America's entry to World War I

One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, the US Congress declared war on Germany.  Europe, along with half of the world, had already been at each other’s throats since July 28, 1914.  Isolationist America managed to remain cautiously neutral for almost 3 years, but worldwide events plus unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany eventually forced the United States to enter The Great War, often referred to by the naïve as the ‘war to end all wars.’

When the guns finally fell silent on November 11, 1918, an estimated 9 million combatants had been killed along with 7 million civilians.  Death on this scale was unprecedented, nor had it been expected.  The culprit was modern war technology via the Industrial Revolution which far out-paced the comprehension level of senior military officials.  Tactics such as full frontal assaults had fossilized with the invention of a rapid-firing device called a machine gun, and the newfangled flying machines were thought to be too flimsy and too unreliable for use in warfare.  Old men with old ideas sent young men to die on new battlefields crammed with new technology and new weapons of mass destruction.

The generally accepted justification for the slaughter is blamed on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Carl Ludwig Joseph Maria, presumed heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  His elongated name is indicative of an authentic ‘Game of Thrones’ era in decline, the passing of Kingdoms, Dukes, Princes, Princesses, Duchesses, and a plethora of sub-titles and sub-ruling families.  Empires would collapse; an erosion on a giant scale of borders, countries, states, alliances, and territories, and sadly, the ‘war to end all wars’ set the stage for a second world war even more disastrous than the first.

Who was this Archduke?  Why did his assassination result in the deaths of millions?  When did panic overtake common sense?  Where was the humanity in young men living and dying in rat-infested trenches?  What caused the failure of diplomacy?  A hot line, a cellphone, a TV interview could have stopped the insanity, but this was 1914, so in the scheme of things ‘insanity’ pretty much ruled the day.

In 1875, Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s cousin Duke Francis V of Modena died, making eleven year old Franz one of the richest men in Austria.  In 1889 his cousin committed suicide, making Franz’s father, Karl, first in line for the throne.  In 1896, Karl succumbed to typhoid fever, making Franz successor to the throne.  Franz was 33 years old at the time.

Franz was a world traveler.  He hunted kangaroos in Australia, visited India and the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides, New Guinea, Hong Kong and Japan.  From Yokohama, Franz sailed across the Pacific Ocean to Vancouver, traveled across America then sailed back to Europe.  He and his wife, the Archduchess, visited England in 1913, stayed with Queen Mary and George V in Windsor Castle, and went hunting with the Duke of Portland.  During their ‘game shooting’ trip, both barrels of Franz’s gun accidently discharged and narrowly missed both the Duke and the Archduke.  The Duke of Portland always suggested that The Great War could have been prevented had the accidental discharge killed Franz.

Contemporary animal rights advocates would have abhorred Archduke Ferdinand, protested against his reign, and called for his abdication.  He claimed over 300,000 ‘game kills’, including 5,000 deer.  About 100,000 stuffed ‘trophies’ were exhibited at Konopiste, his Bohemian castle.

Due to the royal blood in his veins and long-standing traditions, Franz entered the Austro-Hungarian Army at a very young age, promoted to lieutenant at 14, a captain at 22, colonel at 27 and major general at 31.  He never received formal staff training, but by 1913 was in position to command the armed forces during wartime.

Franz and Sophie shortly before their assassination Wikimedia Commons – public domain

He met his future wife, the Countess Sophie Choteck, in 1894 at a ball in Prague.  They kept their relationship secret since Sophie was not a member of a reigning dynasty in Europe and therefore not eligible to marry into Franz’s Imperial House of Habsburg.  Franz didn’t care.  He refused to marry anyone other than Sophie, pitched a few royal temper tantrums, and in 1899 finally received permission to marry the love of his life.  The couple married on July 1, 1900.

There were conditions: the marriage was deemed morganatic, meaning their offspring had no rights to the throne.  Franz’s father skipped his son’s wedding as did all the archdukes.  Only one member of the Royal family attended the wedding, Franz’s stepmother.  Sophie’s restrictions would be considered childish or even ‘stupid’ by later generations: she was unable to sit in the royal box at theaters or share in her husband’s responsibilities or privileges, and was restricted on when and where to be seen in public with Franz.

The Archduke and Sophie lying in state. Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Although kind words greeted his presence, historians were not so nice in their descriptions: “Franz Ferdinand was a man of uninspiring energy, dark in appearance and emotion, who radiated an aura of strangeness and cast a shadow of violence,” or “He was not one who would greet you and felt no compulsion to reach out for the unexplored region the Viennese call their heart.”  Franz was, however, an avid practitioner of Catholic conservatism and advocated a rock-the-boat liberal autonomy for ethnic groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Then again, his feelings towards Hungarians left room for improvement.  In 1904 Franz wrote, “The Hungarians are all rabble, regardless of whether they are minister or duke, cardinal or burgher, peasant, hussar, domestic slave, or revolutionary.”

To simplify the politics of the area and era, the Austro-Hungarian realm and Serbia were archenemies.  War seemed inevitable, even favored by manipulative politicians on both sides, yet Franz advocated a restrained approach towards Serbia plus warned a conflict would bring Russia into the war on Serbia’s side, thus abolishing both Empires.  He was spot on.

Franz’s approach on Serbia was not compassion, rather, common sense politics by a member of royalty who realized the world was on the brink of profound social and governing upheavals, and Franz wanted to keep all the goodies royalty offered.  Teenage assassins broke the cookie jar.

The assassin, Gavrilo Princip – Wikimedia Commons – public domain

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were assassinated by 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, a Sunday.  An assassin had tossed a grenade at their car earlier in the day but missed the royal couple and exploded plus injured occupants of the car behind Franz and his wife.  Undeterred, Franz and Sophie continued on to the Governor’s residence.  Upon arrival, Franz yelled angrily, “So this is how you welcome your guests… with bombs?!”  After a short visit, the royal couple insisted they be driven to the hospital to visit the men injured by the grenade.

Their drivers, however, had not been informed of the itinerary change and drove the wrong way.  Realizing their mistake, they backed up then down a side street where the convoy came to a stop.  Sitting at a café across the street, Gavrilo Princip jumped at the opportunity.  He walked up to the royal motorcar, shot Sophie in the abdomen then shot Franz in the neck.  Sophie saw a thin streak of blood fly from Franz’s mouth.  She asked, “For Heaven’s sake!  What happened to you?” then sank in her seat.  Franz turned to his wife and pleaded, “Sophie dear, don’t die!  Stay alive for our children!” then Franz, too, sagged into his seat.  The Archduke died within minutes; Sophie died en route to the hospital.  An Austro-Hungarian Archduke, assassinated by a pistol provided to the assassins by a Serbian Colonel, would be the catalyst necessary for a world war.  All this, because of one man

Gavrilo Princip under arrest after assassinating the Aruchduke and his wife. Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

After the assassinations, world leaders quarreled and rattled sabers for a month, failed to find a diplomatic compromise, then the cannons let loose their projectiles.  More than one political or ethnic undercurrent led to The Great War, including of course the assassination in Sarajevo, but one dynamic often overlooked guaranteed the war as unstoppable: Mobilization.  

The result of Mobilization in 1914 can best be described in Matthew 24:6 “You will hear of wars and rumors of war….”  Remember, 1914 lacked hot lines, cellphones, or immaculately-dressed well-groomed news anchors.  Communication was archaic by modern standards and easily misread, misinterpreted, and misunderstood.  Men, and horses, began mobilizing throughout Europe.  Britain’s small army requested 165,000 horses for their cavalry and to pull wagons and artillery.  The German army needed 715,000 mounts, the Austrian army 600,000, the Russians over a million horses.  Horses, and mounted cavalry dressed in multicolored uniforms and feathered helmets, would soon be charging thousands of machine guns.

Predictably, the dominoes began to tumble.  Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.  Then as Archduke Ferdinand predicted, Russia started mobilizing.  Germany, an ally of Austria-Hungary, demanded that Russia terminate its mobilization.  Russia refused.   Germany declared war on Russia then invaded Luxembourg.  France, England, Belgium, the Congo, Turkey, India, Italy and much of the world mobilizes and are sucked into the quagmire.

Trains, packed with men, equipment, and horses, began their odysseys towards the kick-off points along national borders, 7,000 French trains, 11,000 German trains.  The summer of 1914 was hot, humid; men wore wool uniforms.  Horses and men had to be fed, given medical aid if sick, rifles and cannons and pistols required ammunition, food and hay and clothing and boots and horseshoes traveled with the men, and horses.  Millions of soldiers were primed for war.  All this, because of one man.

A list of battles and casualties would be too long to itemize.  But let it be said, losing tens of thousands of men over and over again without gaining one foot of territory would not be acceptable in today’s world.  World War One was needless slaughter on a massive scale, and in the end, the ‘war to end all wars’ only sowed the seeds that germinated WWII.

On the German side in The Great War, a Bavarian corporal utilized as a dispatch runner was physically and mentally devastated by the German surrender in 1918.  He blamed the German people on the home front and ethnic groups, mainly the Jews.  He would drag humanity into the Second World War, a conflict more devastating than the first.  All this, because of one man, Adolph Hitler.

On June 25, 1950 the North Korean Army invaded South Korea.  By the end of the 3 year conflict, 33, 652 Americans had been killed in action.  Civilian deaths were estimated at over 2.5 million.  All this, because of one man, the North Korean dictator, Kim ll-sung.

After 10,000 days of war, the Americans pulled out of Vietnam in 1972.  By the time Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army in 1975, 2 million civilians had died on both sides.  The Viet Cong and their ally, the North Vietnamese Army, lost 1.1 million soldiers.  South Vietnam lost 250,000 soldiers.  American deaths stand at 58,315 of the 282,000 Allied deaths. All this, because of one man, Ho Chi Minh.

From July of 1979 until April of 2003, 600,000 Iraqis were executed.  In the Kurdish population, over 100,000 were murdered, including by the use of poison gas.  Approximately 200,000 died in a senseless war with Iran.  During his 8,000+ days in power, on average 100 people per day were murdered or executed or killed in senseless combat.  Americans, thus far, from the Gulf War to present-day missions in Iraq, have lost 5,000 soldiers as a result of this man and/or his legacy.  All this, because of one man, Saddam Hussein.

And all this, doesn’t bode well for mankind.


Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at or

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