06/27/2014 07:00 EDT | Updated 08/27/2014 05:59 EDT

One hundred years ago, Europe began its slow sleepwalk towards war

OTTAWA - On the last Sunday of June in 1914, a 19-year-old student fired two pistol shots that killed the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. The echoes of those shots have never really died away.

The heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire was visiting the then-obscure Bosnian city of Sarajevo when he encountered a group of would-be assassins, including Gavrilo Princip.

One threw a bomb, which failed to injure the archduke. But a wrong turn by his driver put Franz Ferdinand right in front of Princip. The young man fired, fatally wounded the archduke and his wife and precipitated a cataclysm.

The assassins were linked to a secret society in Serbia, which was then a country in its own right. Those ties would lead to disaster.

The archduke was little mourned even in Vienna, but his June 28 death was the catalyst that started the First World War, which has been called the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.

That war still reverberates. The bitter fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s and the tensions and bloodshed of the Middle East are rooted in the aftermath of the war.

1914 was a time of reverence for institutions and authorities. Governments and churches were seen as mainstays of order and social stability. Aristocracies were taken for granted in most countries; due respect was paid.

Patriotism was seen as a virtue. Nationalism was a given.

Internationally, politics and power were dominated by the so-called Great Powers; Britain, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, France and sometimes Italy. The United States, just beginning to flex its industrial and economic muscle, was not a member of the club. Most of Africa and much of Asia consisted of colonies owned by one or another of the European heavyweights. Canada, Australia and New Zealand were self-governing colonies, but colonies all the same.

The economies and finances of the big powers were closely intertwined. Their relations with each other could be touchy, but Europe had not seen a major conflict since the end of the Napoleonic Wars a century earlier. There had been a clash between France and Germany in 1870, which cost France two of its eastern provinces, but that was seen as an exception in a generally peaceful era.

But there were tensions and strains beneath the surface. France, leery of a more populous and economically strong Germany, fretted about a repeat of 1870 and allied with Russia as insurance.

Berlin, seeing the Franco-Russian pact, saw itself caught between foes east and west. Germany's only ally, Austro-Hungary, was a fragile, even ramshackle assembly of often-antagonistic minorities.

Vienna worried that neighbouring Serbia might promote revolution within the Austrian empire.

Russia, which lost a war to Japan in 1906, was concerned that its status as a great power might wane as it struggled to rebuild its army and modernize its industries. Even Britain, secure behind its powerful navy, had its traditional worry about one nation dominating Europe, especially the North Sea and Channel coasts.

The problem with all these individual concerns was that in 1914, the world was faced with, in Winston Churchill's words, "the sum of their fears."

In his book "The World Crisis," Churchill wrote of the last days of peace:

"There was a strange temper in the air. Unsatisfied by material prosperity the nations turned restlessly towards strife internal or external. National passions, unduly exalted in the decline of religion, burned beneath the surface of nearly every land with fierce if shrouded fires. Almost one might think the world wished to suffer."

For a couple of weeks after the assassinations, things seemed quiet.

But the smoldering crisis began to blaze late in July. Vienna saw the killing as an excuse to squelch Serbia once and for all and bring its own minority Slavs under tighter rein. The Austrians took the precaution of asking Berlin to back them up in the event Russia tried to step in on the Serbian side. Germany agreed — the so-called blank cheque seen by many historians as a major step towards all-out war.

On July 23, Vienna sent an ultimatum to Serbia which was couched in terms no sovereign country could accept. The Serbs suggested arbitration as a way to resolve dispute, but also begin to mobilize troops.

In those days, mobilization was seen as the last step before war. It meant calling up the reserves to bring units to their wartime manning levels and moving troops to assembly areas along the borders.

In response to the ultimatum, Serbia proposed arbitration, but began to mobilize. Austria-Hungary followed suit two days later.

From today, there's a horrible inevitability about 1914. One historian writes of Europe sleepwalking towards war. Yet each major power had its interests and fears and was dealing with them and what they saw as external threats. They all thought they could win something from a brief, but hard-fought war. Few expected the protracted cataclysm that lay ahead.

On July 26, Britain proposed a political conference to resolve the Austria-Serbia dispute. Germany refused to take part. Two days later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

The next day, Britain called for international mediation. Russia urged German restraint, but began partial mobilization itself. Germany began to mobilize.

On July 30, Austrian artillery bombarded Belgrade, the Serbian capital. The next day, Russia began full mobilization. On Aug. 1, Germany declared war on Russia and France began mobilizing.

While Germany had enemies on both flanks, it also had a plan: hold off the slow-moving Russians in the east while launching an all-out attack in the west to crush France.

The German plan included a strong right wing that would swing across behind Paris and pin the French armies against the frontier. But there was not enough room to deploy the million-man right without spilling into Belgium.

That posed a problem because Britain, like Germany, was a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. Berlin, however, didn't think Britain would go to war over the treaty, which a German diplomat dismissed as "a scrap of paper."

On Aug. 3, Germany declared war on France, and invaded Belgium.

In London, the cabinet was faced with a terrible decision. Going to war to help France or Serbia was a tough sell politically. But doing so to defend neutral Belgium and Britain's word of honour was a different matter.

The foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, has a poignant passage in his memoirs about the hours before war came. He recalled a friend paying a call on the evening of Aug. 3.

"It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking," Grey wrote.

"My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time.'"

The following evening, a British ultimatum to Germany expired without a reply and Britain — along with Canada and the rest of the empire — went to war.

The next four years would see millions of deaths, including nearly 60,000 Canadians.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly said France ceded two of its western provinces in the 1870 clash with Germany. In fact it was two eastern provinces.