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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Before war was unleashed

It was nearly 100 years ago next month that the opening salvos of the Great War thundered across the Belgian countryside — the Great Powers of the world were throwing their manpower and industrial might at each other in a titanic struggle that would change the world forever.

What we now call the First World War would lead — directly and indirectly — to the Second, to the Cold War to Korea and Vietnam. Lines drawn on maps after the “peace” of Versailles would lead, in fact, to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Agreements signed as a result of the fighting, coupled with the incredible cost of the two wars, would break up the mighty Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and British empires.

The flower of German, French and British youth would die on the fields of Belgium, France, North Africa, Italy, China, Burma and the South Pacific — and in far corners of the world Americans would join them in forgotten graves.

We’re all familiar with these facts — and even with the costs — but what about that faraway world that existed BEFORE the cataclysm?

I like to call it, as many others have, la Belle Epoque — roughly, the “beautiful era.”

Most historians use it to refer only to the period between 1870s — after the Franco-Prussian War — and 1914, when WWI began, and only in France and Belgium.

But I think it has a broader aspect.

If you think about it, the period here and in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries could be considered a golden age of innocence — and of excitement.

It was a time when anything seemed possible. New inventions — the things we take for granted today as signs of modernity — were just being introduced. The telephone, the automobile, the airplane, the phonograph, radio, motion pictures, mass transportation by train, trolley and subway, leisure time for the working classes — and mass production and higher wages allowed workers to actually dream of buying what they produced.

Electricity was controlled — and street lighting was common, even in ordinary homes. The light bulb was quickly replacing gas lighting, and electric appliances were starting to appear.

Fast ocean liners and airships were shrinking the globe, and new printing techniques were reproducing photographs that brought even far-off parts of the globe into every living room.

But despite these dizzying developments, life in small towns was still simple and enjoyable. Children played with each other on the streets, unafraid and watched over by the community. Weekly band concerts on the common entertained young men and women strolling casually while trying to catch each other’s eye.

True, there was a dark underside to all of this. Prejudice and bigotry ran deep and unquestioned through society — both here and in Europe. Blacks, particularly in the South, were still in the iron grip of Jim Crow.

Medicine — not yet able to deploy antibiotics — was unable to cope with simple diseases or common infections, and far too many were lost to a scratch or in childbirth.

Higher education was for the rich, and ignorance ran deep in many parts of the world.

But the appeal of the simple life, and of a time when anything seemed possible, is still strong, and the fact that people around the world who were enjoying it had no idea of the chasm that loomed before them makes our view of that charmed time even more poignant.

July, 1914 — 100 years ago — the calm before the terrible storm.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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