Otto von Bismarck had the right of it nearly forty years previously, when he said, in 1878:
"Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal ... A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all ... I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where ... Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off."The spark was in Serbia. Referring to a crisis in Serbia's neighbor, Bulgaria, ten years after his first comment, Bismarck had this to say:
"Bulgaria, that little country between the Danube and the Balkans, is far from being an object of adequate importance... for which to plunge Europe from Moscow to the Pyrenees, and from the North Sea to Palermo, into a war whose issue no man can foresee. At the end of the conflict we should scarcely know why we had fought."And so it came to pass, though instead of Bulgaria, the powers of Europe went to war over Serbia. Everybody thought that it would be a short, charming little war.
In a few months, it settled into a bloody stalemate. Battles were fought over moving the front lines a few hundred yards that resulted in millions of casualties. Ypres (multiple times). Verdun. Somme. Arras Vimy. Champagne. Isonzo (many times). Brusilov. Gallipoli. Jutland. Atlantic. There were battles that would have been regarded as major losses of life in most other wars, but in this war, were regarded as bloody skirmishes.
The maps of Europe, the Middle East and Africa were redrawn by "statesmen" in Europe. Countries that had not existed in centuries sprang into existence. Boundaries were drawn with no regard for the locations of ethnic populations. In Eastern Europe, there was fighting over that nearly continuously until World War II re-enveloped the entire continent. World War II can be regarded as the second phase of the World War, with the time between 1918 and 1939 being when the major combatants rested, recovered the population of their cannon fodder and rearmed.
The German, Ottoman and Russian empires all fell. The seeds of the decline of the British empire were sown. Aerial bombing of cities became acceptable. Hidebound generals refused to budge from tactics better suited for combat with muzzle-loading muskets, resulting in the wastage of millions of men. The flower of (male) youth of several nations was nearly eliminated. The British landed-estate class system began to fall. The word "genocide" entered the lexicon. It took the Germans over 90 years to pay off the "reparations" assessed in the Treaty of Versailles.* The high-handed redrawing of borders in the Middle East and Africa have reverberated in blood to this day.
Most wars, in retrospect, make little sense. The First World War ranks very high on that list of shame.
* The British, on the other hand, have never paid off their war debt to the United States and have made no move to do so for the last eighty years.