On June 28, 1914, a bumbling gang of assassins failed to kill Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, on his trip to the troubled region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. One disheartened member lingered at a coffee shop in Sarajevo, when up pulled the archduke's automobile. His driver had made a wrong turn. But Gavrilo Princip pulled his pistol and fatally wounded Francis Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Sophie. By August 1st, this tragedy in a small corner of Europe had ignited the First World War. By its end, at least 37 million soldiers and civilians were dead, three empires had been toppled and a fourth had been lethally wounded. In the imposing ossuary on the Verdun battlefield alone, you can look through recessed windows at the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers.
For the rest of the 20th century we lived in the dark shadow of the Great War. The bungled peace of the "war to end all wars" led directly to World War II. Germany's dispatch of Lenin in a sealed train, like a deadly bacillus, back to St. Petersburg brought on the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually a nuclear standoff with the Free World that threatened humanity's extinction. The confidence of the West was forever shattered. Nationalism and tribalism were unleashed, usually with deadly consequences.
It was perhaps fitting, then, that the last British veteran of the Great War, Harry Patch, died on the cusp of August, allowed the gift of years that had been denied so large a portion of his generation. (A common inscription found on the war monuments dotting villages in the U.K: "When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today.").
Yet the equally fitting verse came from Rudyard Kipling, who lost his son in the war: "If any question why we died, tell them because our fathers lied."