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The First World War

Houses of Parliament, London, and unlit lamps

On the eve of World War One, Sir Edward Grey declares, "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

More than three million Brits died or were wounded protecting Europe from conquest by Germany. Fear and greed, an insatiable lust to dominate and the inability of the democracies to make a credible response to the threats of a dictator entangled Europe and Britain in a war that spread catastrophically across the world.

As if they were mountain climbers, a web of treaties roped the nations together. Germany struggled to obtain the summit and dominate the others. They had thought the rope would be their safety, but Germany pulled all of them into the yawning chasm of war.

In 1914 Britain tried to arrange a conference of great nations to stop the disaster. According to research in Imperial German archives, opened in the 1960s, the Kaiser was looking for a reason to launch a war against Russia and its ally France, and the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince in Serbia gave him his excuse.

Germany attacked Russia because the Kaiser believed that growing Russian military power will soon make German dreams of European domination impossible. Declaring war against France, the Kaiser threatened to invade Belgium. Britain issued an ultimatum, for she was pledged to defend Belgium's neutrality.

However, despite her sea-power, which had kept the world's sea-lanes free for trade for 100 years, Britain had a small army and could not make a credible response. Germany rejected Britain's ultimatum.

World War One began in the first week of August, 1914 with Germany declaring war against France; Britain declaring war against Germany; Austria-Hungary declaring war against Russia and Serbia; Britain and France declaring war against Austria-Hungary; and the Ottoman Empire entering the war on Germany's side. Even Japan, linked by treaty to Britain, enters the fray by declaring war on Germany.

Brits fought bravely on the Western and Eastern Fronts, in France, Russia, the Caucasus and Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Italy, Serbia, Greece, Romania, in the North Sea and the Atlantic.

In 1916 and 1917, the neutral United States attempted to mediate a peace. Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare, sank three US merchant ships, and proposed an alliance with Mexico to retake Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The United States entered the war as an ally of Britain. Cuba, Panama, and Brazil, among others, followed suit, and so did China. The entry of the United States on the side of the Allies made victory possible.

Purchased at enormous human cost, Allied victory in November, 1918, opened the door to liberty for many subject peoples newly freed from the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman empires. The independent countries of Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Austria, Hungary, the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and the Republic of Turkey were born.

In Britain, women won the right to vote, and the British Parliament established the principle of self-rule for India, which had contributed one million men to the war effort.

Dictatorships cannot abide justice and freedom and cannot live without domination. Twenty years later, dictators will drag the world into World War Two.

The question we still face today is how to stop dictators.

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