Saturday, 28 June 2014

Countdown to War. Day 1, 28 June: no news from Bosnia

The descent into hell is easy, Virgil tells us in the Aeneid; the difficulty is to turn and climb back up. 

Sometimes, on that road, it isn’t immediately obvious where it
’s heading. Even when the great gates are gaping in front of us (Virgil tells us they stand open night and day), we may feel that just one more effort will stop the slide. But we can’t always call a halt and avoid the fate we dread.

These days, my preferred newspapers are the Guardian during the week and the Observer on Sundays.

I like to think that had I been, say, 20 back then in 1914, living in Manchester and working on the railways, perhaps as a tracklayer, I might also have read what was then the Manchester Guardian – maybe the crew I worked with would club together to get a copy we’d pass between us, or read aloud to the ones who were less sure of their literacy – because it was, after all, our local paper and gave plenty of news about the city and the North West. 

Also, it had detailed reports on the only sports that mattered, football in the winter, cricket in the summer, though for reasons unfathomable to us, it also talked about ridiculous toffs’ games like croquet.

Besides, the Manchester Guardian was a bit left of centre. Did I say that the railwayman – let’s call him Martin – rather liked the Liberal government and especially Lloyd George, who’d brought in National Insurance, so he might actually expect a pension when too old to work? Even a bit of protection if he got sick or unemployed during his career?

Tracklayers in 1914
Not Martin's gang though, unless he spent some time in Sweden
Which, take it from me, he didn't. I should know
Rather liked the Liberals, but not too much. He’d joined the brand new National Union of Railwaymen and, had he had a vote at all, would only have voted Liberal if there wasn’t a candidate standing from the youngest party on the scene, Labour, growing strongly but not yet in a position to challenge for power. Because he wanted things to move on: more education, better hospitals free to everyone, that sort of thing. And the Guardian tended to go along with such thinking; it backed the Liberals and Labour too.

Martin would go to the Methodist chapel most Sundays, along with his family and most of his neighbours. And the Minister liked to think of himself as a bit of a radical. He was a likeable chap so Martin didn’t disabuse him, though none of his friends thought he’d come down on the truly radical side if they did anything that challenged anyone, like strike. But, hey, he’d always been friendly, and he he’d pass Martin the Observer on Sundays after he’d finished with it.

Martin was young, in good health, and had done well at school till he had to leave at the earliest possible age, 14, to start earning a living. His wit would open some doors for him, perhaps in the railways, perhaps in the union. And if it were the union, that could even lead into politics some day. There were working men getting into Parliament now, through the Labour Party. Why shouldn’t that be him in a few years?

So that’s Martin. 

And what would he have read in the Observer one hundred years ago today, on Sunday 28 June 1914? Nothing would have told him that he and his country, indeed the Continent to which it belonged, had just taken the first step on the road to hell. Indeed, what’s most striking about what he would have read, day by day on that downward journey, was how little was said about where they were going in the first weeks. Indeed, later, when the flames beckoned, even then, there seemed to be a chance of avoiding them. But by then they were unavoidable.

And that’s what we’re going to follow over the next 39 days. The path that took Martin and millions more Martins and Marthas, from innocence to somewhere far worse.

As I said, there was no sign of it in the paper of 28 June.

First, there was the good news. Lancashire, our team, didn’t just beat Gloucestershire in the county Championship but crushed them, by an innings and 11 runs. Massive. Just what we needed. Especially as things weren’t going well for the side that season.

Lancashire County Cricket Club at Old Trafford
in the period before World War One
But not all was well in the world. There was trouble brewing. The Liberal government was trying to bring in legislation for Home Rule in Ireland, but Protestants in the North had formed the Ulster Volunteers, busily arming themselves to resist any attempt to loosen the bonds with Britain. The Nationalist Volunteers had been launched in response, and the Observer reported, “the whole of Ireland is talking rifles; nobody at all is talking politics.” There is now “absolute deadlock between Unionist Ulster and Nationalist Ireland.”

The Nationalists were appealing to the United States, in particular to Irish Americans, to fund their cause, and using the money to buy enough guns to arm 50,000 volunteers. According to the paper, the British government was powerless to do more than “save face” and had only “held up one or two very small cargoes”, but was generally “winking at” the breaches of the law on both sides.

The correspondent went on, “I hear on good authority that the National Volunteers who have faithfully followed the pattern of the Ulster Volunteers, now propose to imitate the great gun-running coup.”

Bad news. That was the kind of thing that could degenerate into all-out war. And after more than forty years of peace in Europe, no one wanted war again.

It’s just possible that Martin might have read, with a wry smile at the fuss being made over anything so trivial, a minor news item about the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Francis Joseph. Having recovered from a recent illness he was setting off for his summer holidays, and crowds in Vienna had gathered to wish him well and wave him on his way.

Honestly. One of Europe’s authoritarian rulers. In power by birth and without merit. It was laughable how seriously so many people still took royalty.

What he didn't read, because it wouldn't be covered till the following day, was that the Emperor's holiday had been spoiled before it had even begun. In a town Martin had never heard of, Sarajevo, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the heir to the throne had been assassinated with his wife. 

On the day it happened, Martin knew nothing of it. So it would close without his learning how fateful 28 June had already become.


Awoogamuffin said...

I've finally started! Looking forward to the rest

David Beeson said...

Glad you're looking forward to them