It started on June 28, 1914. While traveling through the streets of Sarajevo in an open car, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was shot and killed by a Serbian assassin. One month later, in retaliation, the Austro-Hungarian government declared war on Serbia.
That declaration marked the beginning of World War I. The scope and reach of the conflict was unprecedented: more than 65 million men battled around the globe for four years, resulting in the death of more than nine million soldiers.
This was the first war to employ advanced technology such as airplanes, tanks and submarines, the first time that governments achieved wholesale killing with automatic weapons and poisonous gasses. The slaughter continued until the morning of November 11, 1918. It was close to dawn of that day when British, French and German officials gathered in a railway carriage to the north of Paris and signed the Armistice – the cease fire – that brought about the end of the fighting.
At the time, it was widely believed that when society saw the horrors and costs of modern warfare, no nation would ever again be tempted to fight, and led to the conflict being described as The War To End All Wars. Sadly, of course, it wasn’t; in fact, there have been more than 150 wars in the 90 years since the Armistice was signed.
If you visit Sarajevo, you’ll have a hard time locating the place where it all started. The spot where Franz Ferdinand was shot is marked by a small bronze plaque set in the pavement. If you don’t search closely, you could easily miss the obscure memorial.
In contrast, the memory of WWI’s fallen troops is preserved by countless monuments and markers, including this one, which stands on Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Street outside post No. 5195 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.
On the base of the statue is a plaque that says, “Red Hook Memorial Doughboy. Erected in honor of those men and women of the Third Assembly District who served in the World War and in remembrance of those of their number who lost their lives and whose names ware here inscribed.”
Below the bronze plaque is a list of more than 90 names; schoolmates, friends and neighbors, all lost from a small, working class area in a remote corner of Brooklyn.
Chances are, no one alive today remembers those boys. Their parents, sweethearts, wives and children — those who were touched by their lives and deaths — may have vanished into the mists of time, but today, on the 90th anniversary of the end of “The War to End All Wars,” we should all pause and remember.