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This month in history 100 years ago: As the world slides into war, New Zealand meets a fateful general

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GeneralWith hindsight it is obvious that the world was sliding towards war 100 years ago and the month of May 1914 was packed with incidents that can, with hindsight, be seen as milestones on the road.

For months, if not years, Europe had been sitting on a powder keg of tensions between nations. The Austro Hungarian Empire was entering its last days and Russia was supporting Bosnian Serbs who wanted to leave the empire and join Serbia. Germany was siding with the Austro Hungarians. There had been a vast arms race and Germany, Russia and France felt very threatened. Britain didn’t like the thought of the German Navy being a rival to the Royal Navy.

All in all, it was like five gamblers all pointing guns at each other under the table. The first one to make a mistake would spark war, and none knew what the mistake would be.

That was the very simplified background to the events that were slowly unfolding during the month of May 1914. As we wrote last month, an article in the Berlin Post said that Germany should take the first excuse to go on the attack as soon as possible against its enemies, notably France, Russia and Britain, before they were ready to go to war themselves. Russia it said was too afraid of revolutionaries to want war, Britain was preoccupied with troubles in Ireland and elsewhere and France wasn’t ready. So the time was right.

That report summed up the situation with extraordinary precision. Our newspapers kept a running commentary about Britain’s dilemma in Ireland. Britain was preparing to give independence to the country we now call Ireland (not including Northern Ireland) and taking advantage of that situation, the IRA of the day pulled off a spectacular gun running operation. Irish Republicans staged distractions in many different places to keep the police and army occupied and using a small fleet of ships, ran at least 17,000 German rifles into the country. Even more spectacularly, the newspapers were able to print full details of how it was done. No doubt the Republicans were letting the British know they had a fight on their hands if they didn’t do the deal.

The Russians were building a very large navy again; on 1 May 1914 under the heading of “Another War Cloud”, the Auckland Star repeated a British article that said Germany was ramping up fears about the Russian Navy in order to ensure that the German people would continue to pay the cost of ever more ships and guns:

“…at the present time it is vastly improbable that either Russia or France is looking for an excuse to squabble,” the article said, “and these gloomy prognostications about Russia’s future policy are in all likelihood intended to keep alive the apprehensions of the German people and give the Imperial Government some excuse for maintaining its policy of armament expansion while avoiding any step that could be regarded as menacing or unfriendly to England.”

Both Britain and Germany announced plans to increase the size of their navies and Germany unveiled to the world the Schutte Lans Airship, with a speed of 83 kilometres an hour and machine gun armament.

If the airship was intended to be the 1914 equivalent of shock and awe, the French had gone one better. Not only had they created a fleet of 400 military aeroplanes, some of them having armour plate, but the ace in the pack was the plane that already packed a machine gun. Even by the standards of the times, the newspaper report of its existence was laconic in the extreme:

“A shell crashed through a window of a flat in the city, filled the room with smoke and dust and broke the mantelpiece. It was discovered that the missile had been fired from a gun that was being secretly tested from a military aeroplane.”

“The inventor claims that the piercing of an iron shutter and the destroying of a room at a range of 1,000 yards (about a kilometre) is a splendid demonstration of the efficiency of the gun.”

Presumably that was a huge relief to the flat’s occupants whose room had just been destroyed with such efficiency!

Despite this technological wonder, France was certainly not ready for war, in fact with its public debt standing at a colossal 1.3 billion English pounds, France was going bankrupt. Germany, meanwhile had a war levy in its tax structure and made it clear that it was every German’s patriotic duty to pay up.

Just to add to the tensions, during May papers reported that France, Britain and Germany had been catching each other’s spies. The most hair raising incident being the French discovery that a German cutlery firm had acquired land in several strategic areas in France. At one, Rheims, a hugely important military centre, it was building a winery to make champagne. It just so happened that the cellars extended right under the railway line that would have been used to move large parts of the French Army. The other development was being built alongside the city’s waterworks.

And while all this was going on, in a bizarre foreword to history, Sir Ian Hamilton, Britain’s Inspector General of the Overseas Forces had been on an extended tour of New Zealand and its military preparations. The newspapers reported almost daily on what he was doing, where he had been and what he had said. Clearly he made a big impression.

He was to do again on 25 April 1915, when as the commander of the forces landing at Gallipoli, he led into battle the New Zealanders and Australians who created the ANZAC legend.

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