The little boy pictured in due course became eighth Marquess of Lansdowne but, in spite of his appearance, grew up in a remarkably progressive family. His father, Lord "Charlie" Mercer Nairne, was killed in France in October 1914, and Lord Lansdowne, the boy's grandfather, distinguished himself in the prevailing mood of jingoism by turning his home, Bowood Park, into a hospital and arguing throughout the war for peace without retribution.
The speed with Europe plunged into conflict took everyone by surprise. The assassination, by a Serbian, of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on 28 June provoked an unexpectedly severe reaction from the Vienna government. Within five weeks, Austro-Hungarian aggression, backed up by Germany's volatile Kaiser, had caused various treaties to be violated and jeopardized the brittle network of alliances which maintained European peace. Germany invaded Belgium on 4 August and Britain - by virtue of the 1839 Treaty of London which had guaranteed Belgian neutrality - was at war.
Within months, a line of stagnant trenches from the North Sea to Switzerland signalled the muddy stalemate that much of the Great War was to be taken up in. Boredom rather than death, it seems, is what most soldiers feared at first. Reports reached the government of infantrymen daring each other to attack enemy machine gun posts just to relieve the monotony. Putting paid to any idea that the conflict would be over by Christmas, British forces alone had sustained casualties of 100,000 by year's end and if the war needed a more eloquent testimony to its futility than this, 25 December 1914 provided it. Meeting one another in no-man's-land during an informal truce, Germans swapped cigars for English soldiers' jam and exchanged festive greetings in simple French.
Mike HigginsReuse content