In the Centennial Footsteps of the Great War from Sarajevo to Versailles VOL I  by Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy

It is an ambitious author and photographer who states that the aim of his book is to ‘help prevent the Third World War’, but from someone who is now Hungary’s Ambassador to France, I applaud his ambition that if we ‘understand the reasons and the consequences of the First World War’, we can understand the reasons and consequences of all war, let alone the first, second and plausible third world wars … and all that has gone on meantimes. 

There are many times when I feel the book should be accompanying the BBC TV series, in which Attila treks the globe like Michael Palin visiting the sites and attending events and speaking to locals, dignitaries and visitors.

The First World War did indeed “change the world forever and shaped the 20th century” and as George von Habsburg states in his introduction, not the Europe should listen to the views of someone with a royal lineage that has come about simply by accident of birth, but indeed, “If we do not understand the suffering caused by a worldwide conflict, we can become careless with peace’. 

The photographs, there must be many thousands of these depict battlefields, official commemorations ‘and the work of historical reenactors all from today’s perspective, echoing the past in the present’.

If, like me, you have wrestled with reenactment, especially if you still feel close to a grandfather or grandmother or great-uncle you knew who served or simply lived and endured these times, then you have to consider the value of bringing elements of the past to life for a new generation. The First World War is becoming, like Waterloo, or even the Battle of Crecy, something that happened outside living memory. The individual reenactor and those enjoying their reenactment are connecting with the past and keeping the memory of that event alive, as others do through books, museums, videos and blogs. 

You get a number of impressions when you first pick up a copy of Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy’s  In the Centennial Footsteps …, it is a weighty tome, an ambitious undertaking and wonderfully executed with succinct text covering battles and events on every front, set carefully in historic and geographic context, with references back through the centuries to explain actions that came from previous conquests, empire building, colonialism and global trade. It is even a travel guide, not that I’m about to put this or indeed two volumes in a trunk to take on my travels, but you do find yourself dreaming about visiting some of these locations and the accompanying museums such as the The Sarajevo Museum 1878-1918 and The Museum of Military History in Vienna.

My review volume sits on a wooden reading stand I acquired from an antique shop. Having now read it cover to cover and enjoyed pursuing the many hundreds of original photographs it will join other reference volumes of this calibre: such as a Times atlas of the First World War and volumes on the art of the Great War. 

There are more pages of photographs than of text, whilst I read my copy of ‘In the Centennial Footsteps’ from cover to cover over six weeks, it invites you to browse, to dip into a chapter and flick through the collections of photographs which are featured with each story. I have too many favourites to list but capturing the essence of events that took place over one hundred years ago using contemporary photographs is no mean feat. Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy has an eye for capturing what we know can be a challenging topic: cemeteries, gravestones and monuments while using a director's eye to shoot reenactors that makes you feel you are on the set of a grand cinematic undertaking.  It is, as he states ‘very different to anything published before and unrepeatable’ - the kind of centennial events we witnessed between 2014 and 2018 marking the First World War may only return in a different form when the Second World War’s centennial is marked between 2039 and 2045. 

The soul of In the Centennial Footsteps …  emanates from central and eastern europe spreading out across all five continents taking a truly world perspective in equal measure. Created for and of the centenary “In the Centennial Footsteps …’ is not shy to look back across the century before the ‘first’ world war and to the century since, with the Second World War and the Cold War, even speculating what lessons we may or may not have learnt regarding the likelihood and causes of a third world war. It is this what makes “In the Centennial Footsteps …” such a unique and encyclopaedic adventure: the first world war is seen as a tipping point between the 19th and 20th centuries and beyond. 

Following the prologue, forward and ‘in memory of … ‘, each worth reading in their own right, we come to the first chapter proper on ‘the Sarajevo Assassination’. It’s easy to think that we know this story, that the motivies, maps and itineraries have been spelt out to us, but the joy of In the Centennial Footsteps … is that we experience the authors visit to the locations, his investigations and keen photographic making the book both a history and a travelogue. As we in Britain, as well as in France, and certainly Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and to a lesser degree in the US made a great fuss about commemorating the First World War, other countries did not do so. It is apt therefore that this journey inevitably starts in Sarajevo where on 28 June 2014 there was no united commemoration at all, or indeed any kind of memorial either. Visits to The Sarajevo Museum 1878-1918 and The Museum of Military History in Vienna are recommended. I feel like I'm planning a trip already. 

For now, my journey is to read on, and on, now certain that the text will be as insightful and as well written as the photographs have been researched and created. 

In the Centennial Footsteps … was eight years in the making - and there’s a second volume to come. Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy visited all five continents and created images to help tell stories of the war on land, at sea and in the air, on distant battlefields on every front.

The author is convinced that the First World War “changed the world forever and shaped the 20th century” which indeed it did and that ‘understanding the reasons and the consequences of the First World War will help prevent the Third World War’ though this economist and former President of the Budapest Stock Exchange unwittingly appeared to quote business and government leaders speaking in the summer of 1914 when they suggested (and hoped)  that a major European war was impossible at the time given how closely our countries were aligned economically - this despite Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and Donbas in 2014 and of course a sentiment expressed long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

George von Habsburg, a son of Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, recalls the Battle of Austerlitz of 2 December 1805, along with the Treaty of Schönbrun and the Battle of Waterloo that in hindsight can be seen to be at the beginning of a century of peace (though not I might point out so peaceful for the millions of subjects in dominion countries and european controlled colonies around the world).

The Sarajevo Assassination

On 28 June 2014 the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand went unmarker, despite the cataclysm it set off - though at statue was put up to the assassin Princip, and Serbia bizarrely now als0has a statue of Tsar Nicholas II, which suggest to what degree the celebration of any historical events caught in national sentiment.  

Mobilisation was a precursor to war in 1914; surely the world saw this when Russia mobilised in such numbers before invading Ukraine? And was not the Kaiser as deluded as Putin when he expected to achieve a ‘quick and resounding military victory’. We should be aware of delusions of power and conscious of the innate human desire for freedom, or at least a sense of it, within the boundaries of your own sovereign state?  Personally, I’m not convinced, based on what I have learnt about him, that the Kaiser never wanted peace - rather he was chief amongst the war mongers. I would turn to his British Ambassador, and other voices in Europe who wanted to avoid war. This is one of just a couple of misconceptions I have found in ‘In the Centennial Steps …’ The other is regarding the student regiment that was supposedly wiped out at Langemark and is commemorated and celebrated in the iconic cemetery there,  which I understand was a propaganda story developed by the Nazis. 

There are dates and battles I have been introduced to and reminded of which I will now never forget; ‘In the centennial footsteps … ‘ makes the case for us to bring to the fore all kinds of battles, because it is essentially a book about battles, and how they were lost or won and their significance, such as the First Habsburg invasion of Serbia which was thwarted 15-24 August 1914. 

Attila calls The Battle of Cer, ‘the First Allied victory of the First World War’ which began on the 15th August. It is remembered every year and was celebrated on 24 August 2014 at Tekeri. And The Battle of the Drina, 7 September - 4 October 1914 which is marked in Serbia with reenactors in a way the Scots may mark Bannockburn or the English Waterloo? I shouldn’t consider it so strange given that I live in a town that marked the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes with reenactors fighting it out in a series of tableaus and ‘scenes’ from one end of town to the other. That success in ‘bringing history alive’ has seen the event become an annual one - it is a great opportunity to remind people of their history making it a great opportunity for education. So I have to commend reenactors and the insights they personally gain, and the spectacle that visitors can enjoy which therefore engages them, some for the first time, with the events that they depict. 

This is a lesson in national pride and psyche to wish to commemorate certain battles and events and people. I have to question the purpose behind dedicating a monument to  Tsar Nicholas II, even if he was a cousin of my own monarch at the time. While celebrating an assassin such as Gavrilo Princip also seems somewhat against 21st century evocations of democracy, negotiation and bloodless transition between democratically elected parties - though the violence required then and since and currently to overthrow regimes is understandable.

The storytelling is succinct and revealing. In the Centennial footsteps … is a reference book like no other, casting back to the early 1800 century, and sometimes further back and bringing events through to the 21st century and the centennial events. The battles continue, such as: 

The Battle of the Kolubara (16 November to 15 December 1914) The day when the Serbian army, led by the staunch General Zivojin Misic, launched a counter-offensive against the second Austro-Hungarian military campaign in the First World War This victory encouraged Italy to join the war on the Entente side and it delayed Bulgaria joining the Central Powers. A statue of Victor unveiled in 1928 and set to face the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Invasion of Belgium brings us to the familiar ground of the western front with The Battle of the Frontiers and the misjudgements made by Joffre and then the First Battle of Ypres (8 October 1914) when the first British Troops arrived in Ypres. In the global romp we then have War in West Africa followed by the Invasion of East Prussia. The contrast couldn't be greater, not more important to showcase in this way - too little is done to talk of the war in global terms, despite being called ‘The First World War’, those nations that still take an interest usually stick to their side, which is rather like seeing the Olympics through the prism of your nations athletes only. 

Our eclectic itinerary continues to The Battle of Galicia and Poland where Poland and Hungary remember the Battle of Limanowa in southern Poland from 1st to 13th December 1914, remembered 14 December 2014. To Germany’s navy firing shells at Hartlepool and the Heugh Battery, followed by The Ottoman Empire and the Decline of the Ottoman Empire. The Balkan Wars 1912-13 are quite rightly discussed, as are the Young Turks of  3 July 1908 Young Turks as these events shaped the alliances and players of the great war. 

Who has heard about the Battle of Sarikamish 22 December 1914 to 17 January 1915.  It was an engagement between the Russian and Ottoman empires during World War I. It took place from December 22, 1914, to January 17, 1915, as part of the Caucasus campaign. Russian trenches in the forests of Sarikamish. The battle resulted in a Russian victory, but the later Russian retreat and request to launch a diversionary strike  led three months later to the Gallipoli campaign.

What feels like an eclectic mix of a succinct summary of events then and during the centenary, generously illustrated with contemporary photographs, but actually a comprehensive and representative weaving of the global narrative of a world war at the time of Empire reminding of France’s invasion of Tunisia in 1881, Britain’s invasion of Egypt in 1882 and Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1911 while Turkey’s marking of the ‘martyrs of the Battle of Savikamish’ with a march on the first Sunday of the year, an interesting insight. 

We then press on through the Mesopotamian Campaign of course dipping into The First Christmas on the Western Front and the 1915 The Zeppelin Raid. Further afield, at least for a British audience, the author looks at the Surrender of German South West Africa 9 July 1915, the huge event which was the Surrender Prezmyṡl as well as the Great offensives of the Western Front, Suez Canal and Vosges Mountains. 

Armenian Genocide, Gallipoli, Gorlice-Tarnów and the Kaiser's desire to starve Britain out of the war with the U-boat campaign the Lusitania forming part of this story.  Battles in the Alps, Fall of Belgrade and the Siege of Kut, Bulgaria, Salonika and Serbia end volume I. 

In conclusion, this is an unique publication which captures events during the centennial of the First World War which would never otherwise have been covered, or compiled into one publication (albeit in two volumes). The history of the Great War is important and has as much resonance today as it did during the centenary years - perhaps even more so given that once again we have a war in Europe. 

You can purchase In the Centennial Footsteps here >