Tomorrow morning, at exactly 11 o’clock, Britain will fall silent. Millions of people, young and old, wealthy and poor, will unite to honor the fallen.

Known originally as Armistice Day, Britain’s first day of remembrance was held on November 11, 1919, marking the first anniversary of the end of World War I. As Remembrance Sunday today, it is one of few sacred moments on our national calendar.

Was it really the first Great War, then? What was the reason for it? How did over five million men from Britain or Ireland end up on Gallipoli’s beaches, in Mesopotamia’s deserts, and in Palestine, and above all in the mud of war?

Ordinary soldiers at the time found it all utterly confusing. ‘What devil has brought this war upon us?’ they would mutter. ‘What is all this about, God help us?’

Even though the guns were silenced 100 years ago, historians continue to debate the causes.

Imperial greed? Nationalist bloodlust Or just a series of mistakes and miscommunications?

Understanding the reasons for World War I is crucial today, as the world has become so volatile. Today’s world is full of uncertainties, much like the days before 1914. These are no longer the Cold War certainty, as terrifying and frightening as they used to be.

China is challenging the U.S. Pacific power, while Vladimir Putin and his client are rattling in Belarus and Eastern Ukraine. Who would wager against any provocation turning into war?

These past weeks have brought home reminders about the fragile nature of peace that we often take as a given.

China claims Taiwan as its own, while the U.S. State Department warns that Russian troops may be advancing along the Ukrainian border. A prelude or exercise to an invasion? It is hard to know.

The footage that emerged yesterday of Russian and Belarusian paratroopers taking part in unnannounced military drills close to the Polish border — where thousands of migrants are gathering — is certainly little cause for comfort.

Is the current global climate ever so uncertain?

And isn’t it possible that the resulting adventurism, hubris, fear and distrust could build into precisely the same kind of cataclysm that tore the world apart in 1914?

Here, then, is a lesson in how arrogance, weakness, insecurity and the psychological flaws of individual leaders can lead to disaster — and many millions of deaths.

First, let us get back to what history is really all about — not vast, impersonal forces, but human beings. With a grim irony, given the agonies World War I brought to millions of mothers, the story begins with that most fundamental human instinct — a mother’s love for her child.

Marija Princip, a farmer’s wife from the tiny village of Obljaj, in the wooded mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina, had great hopes for her son Gavrilo. Marija convinced her husband to take Gavrilo to Sarajevo when he turned 13. The boy was bright, intelligent, and a natural bookworm. He could attend school in Sarajevo and be an outstanding man, Marija believed.

In August 1907, Gavrilo Princip’s train pulled into Sarajevo, a bustling city of mosques and bazaars that were overwhelming to a country boy.

He was initially a diligent student and worked hard to complete his assignments. But, being lonely, unmotivated, and lacking in money, he started to lose track of the lessons. At 17 he missed lessons, and he failed a critical exam.

Gavrilo had found a new and incendiary passion — politics. Gavrilo sought to find someone to blame for his troubles and, just like the other Bosnian Serb youths, he turned his attention on Austrians, who have ruled Bosnian since 1878.

Over the years, Gavrilo’s hatred festered. Gavrilo moved to Belgrade (the capital of Serbia’s neighboring Kingdom) and began his involvement with terrorist nationalist groups.

In the spring 1914, one his friends gave him a newspaper clipping. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to visit Sarajevo in June as the Austro-Hungarian heir. Gavrilo saw potential for an international terrorist show that would be shocking.

This was how the Archduke of Austria and his assassin met on 28 June 1914 in what would be one of the most pivotal moments in the history humankind has ever witnessed.

When Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie drove into Sarajevo, one of Gavrilo’s comrades threw a bomb at their car, but it missed by inches. The couple, despite being shaken but determined to go on with their lives, attended a reception. They decided that they would visit the hospital wounded and made a change in their plans. Their driver took a wrong turn on the way and put their car in reverse. The engine exploded.

A British ammunition column during World War I, circa 1915

A British ammunition column during World War I, circa 1915

A moment passed before the car stopped, almost as if it was frozen in place. Then a man stepped forward from the pavement — thin, frail and shabbily dressed, with an unblinking stare. Gavrilo Princip. He was unable to believe his luck and pulled out his gun. Franz Ferdinand hit Sophie in the neck; Sophie was hurt in the stomach. As his wife slumped at his side, the Archduke whispered: ‘Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Stay alive for our children!’

World news spread about the crime spree, setting off the chain reaction that would lead to war.

The Austrians decided to launch military reprisals after capturing Princip and his associates. They held Serbia responsible, not unreasonably.

For years Serbia’s politicians had whipped up anti-Austrian sentiment, and Princip’s gang had been encouraged and armed by Serbian intelligence agents.

It was now time for Serbia to learn a lesson.

An obvious problem was however present.

Serbia could appeal to Russia, its eastern colossus and protector, if Austria declared war.

So, a week after Franz Ferdinand’s murder, on Sunday, July 5, two men had lunch in Berlin. The Austrian ambassador was one of them. One was the Austrian ambassador. The other, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Germany.

Later, Allied propaganda painted Wilhelm as a blood-crazed monster. However, Wilhelm was merely insecure and bumptious.

At Wilhelm’s birth almost 60 years earlier, the doctors had accidentally torn the nerves in his neck. The left side of his body was paralysed and rendered useless. He also suffered terrible earache as a child.

His mother Vicky — a daughter of Queen Victoria — treated him like a freak, and he never got over it. He was still a hot-tempered, needy, and anxious seeker of attention, even after he became Kaiser in 1888.

Wilhelm, who was constantly irritated at British relatives, cut an absurd figure on international stages. ‘The English,’ he said bitterly, ‘will be brought low some day!’

Plus, his generals and he felt threatened from their neighbors: Russia to one side, France to another. The generals believed that Russia was going to be a challenger, as it had industrialized at an alarming rate.

Some German generals believed they needed to fight Russia before the country became too powerful. ‘War the sooner the better,’ the army chief, Helmuth von Moltke, told the Kaiser in 1912.

So when the ambassador confided Austria’s plans to strike against Serbia, Wilhelm offered them a ‘blank cheque’, promising unconditional support.

Was he really implying war here? It’s almost certain that he did not. Wilhelm never believed that the Austrians would act, and definitely never imagined the Russians would resist.

In fact, the very next day he left for his summer yachting holiday —hardly the behaviour of a would-be warmonger.

However, the crisis spiraled out of control over the following weeks. This was not due to the alliances between European powers but rather the anxieties and flaws of some extremely powerful men.

In other circumstances, Russia’s Nicholas II might have hesitated to pour petrol on the flames. However, his family history came into play.

Nicholas’s father, the domineering Alexander III, had taught him to rule as an autocrat. This had caused years of unrest in the home, culminating in a failed revolution in 1905.

As a result, Nicholas’s advisers were desperate to win popularity at home by asserting Russian strength abroad.

Then there were the French, seething with resentment after their defeat by Wilhelm’s grandfather in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. They were afraid of losing further ground and urged Russia to resist German pressure.

Polish Military Police soldiers guard the fence during 'Operation Strong Support' near the Polish-Belarusian border crossing in Kuznica, eastern Poland, 09 November 2021

Polish Military Police troops guard the fence in ‘Operation Strong Support’, 09/11/2021, near Kuznica’s border crossing with Belarus.

We often believe that these men didn’t know what was ahead. But that’s simply not true. They knew from their diaries and letters that millions could be killed in an age when there were battleships and aeroplanes.

They did it because they were scared. It is clear that they were afraid. Fearful of appearing weak or being outmatched by their competitors, they refused to give up.

They chose to gamble on their ability to stand firm and risk the lives of many millions in a bet that they could easily lose.

They fell over one after another. Austria declared war against Serbia. Russia mobilized its troops against Austria. Germany then declared war on Russia, France and Germany.

What about Britain? Few ordinary Britons had given Franz Ferdinand’s murder much thought — including the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith.

He was a smart, well-travelled Yorkshireman who had run the country since 1908, and was now in his 60s.

However, he had other priorities. He was completely besotted with his daughter’s best friend, Venetia Stanley, who was in her early 20s. He often wrote hundreds of letters to his daughter, many times multiple times daily.

He told her that both sides were equally bad. The Serbs deserved a ‘thorough thrashing’, but the Austrians were ‘quite the stupidest people in Europe’.

If war broke out, it might build into a ‘real Armageddon’. But ‘there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators’. Sir Edward Grey was his foreign secretary.

He had been trying for years to bring Britain together with France and was now determined to honor it.

Grey lived under a deepening shadow. He had lost his wife young, while his brother in Africa had killed him. Now he was beginning to lose his eyesight — a cruel affliction for a passionate birdwatcher.

Depressed and lonely, he decided that Britain had to fight. He thought that France and Germany would prevail if they stayed away, so he believed we’d be friends only on the global stage.

He was right. Many historians agree that he was. Sceptics, however, argue that Britain’s youth paid a heavy price for Grey’s loneliness and pessimism.

Yet on the first weekend of August 1914, as Germany and France headed for war, Britain’s destiny remained uncertain. The decisive turn came now.

In order to manage a conflict that raged on two fronts simultaneously, the Germans created a plan for knocking out France first and striking at neutral Belgium second.

The Kaiser’s generals knew Britain was pledged to guarantee Belgium’s independence. On Sunday night August 2, 1914 they made the most disastrous gamble of World War I.

Hoping to bully the Belgians into agreement — and thereby avoid British reprisals — they issued an ultimatum, demanding free passage. They refused, proud Belgians.

On August 4, two days later, the German military crossed the Belgian border.

At midday, King Albert asked Britain for help. Our government sent an ultimatum two hours later to Kaiser. It would be war if he didn’t reply before 11 that night. Darkness fell.

In his office overlooking St James’s Park, Sir Edward Grey stood with a friend, watching the men light the lamps in the street below.

‘The lamps are going out all over Europe,’ he said quietly. ‘We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

The sound of the Big Ben’s chimes echoing through the glass windows at 11pm was followed by crowds singing God Save The King. Berlin had not responded. A few moments later, a signal flashed from the Admiralty to Britain’s fleet across the world. It read simply: ‘Commence Hostilities At Once Against Germany.’

The Great War began. This war was not accidental. It happened through misadventures, mistakes, and miscalculations.

Some 886,000 British and colonial servicemen and women lost their lives — leaving almost a million families scarred by grief and loss.

It was worth the effort? Although the issue will not be resolved, there are certain lessons. More than ever today, leadership is essential in the West.

Naivety and impulse posturing are as deadly as spineless appeasement or vague good intentions.

Our leaders must remain composed and clear-headed in face of increasing provocation from Russia, China and other countries. They need to be firm, but not aggressive — and above all to keep talking.

Tomorrow, though, what matters is to remember the fallen, not just in World War I but in all Britain’s wars ever since.

Over 80,000 war monuments can be found in all parts of Britain, from the grandiose Cenotaph to small country villages.

Each name is the reflection of a human once alive and breathing, with dreams and hopes, who died to protect this nation. Tomorrow, when the Last Post is played and the clocks go to 11, we need to remember these people. 

Adventures In Time: The First World War, by Dominic Sandbrook, is published by Particular Books at £14.99. ©Dominic Sandbrook 2021. To order a copy for £13.49, go or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Discount valid up to 28/11/2021