Talk by Dr Seán Lang, 9 December 2014

In the summer of 1914, no one imagined the First World War was looming. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo made headlines for a few days, but then the focus shifted back to the pleasures of bathing in the river at Grantchester.

Dr Seán Lang used extracts from the Cambridge newspapers to convey the experiences of that long hot summer. Germany, the home of modern science and romantic poetry, seemed like a natural friend. Other countries, notably Russia, were seen as more likely threats. A conference in July at Buckingham Palace about averting war was concerned with the risk of fighting in Ireland, not against Germany. The arrival of refugees from Belgium, and talk of atrocities, turned British opinion against Germany.

During the summer, a more pressing concern in Cambridge was the “furious driving” of motor-cycles, filling the magistrates’ courts. Later, when the undergraduates volunteered, many hoped to turn their skills on a motor-cycle to use as despatch riders – more than were needed. For many who might have expected an officer’s commission, it was a point of pride to join up as privates, to show their commitment to the cause. Of course, no one expected the war to last beyond Christmas.

Dr Lang’s combination of contemporary photographs, newspaper extracts, poetry, letters and music brought out the poignancy of the innocent heroism which led from a reflex to support “plucky Belgium” into the four years of slaughter in the trenches. It was a sobering and enlightening introduction to the centenary.