European leaders mark 100th anniversary of outbreak of first world war

Centenary of first global conflict is marked by European politicians in Belgium with calls for peace and sabre rattling over Ukraine

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 10:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 10:50am

World leaders marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war yesterday, warning of the lessons to be learned in the face of today's many crises, including Ukraine.

"Peace has to be a shared goal," Belgium's King Philippe told leaders gathered in the eastern city of Liege.

"World War I reminds us to reflect on our responsibility ... to bring people together."

Watch: World leaders mark WWI centenary in Belgium's Liege

Leaders from across Europe - from Britain and Ireland to Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Malta - attended the commemoration at the war memorial of Cointe, a tower overlooking the city with a weathered grey-stone church painted with white doves for the occasion.

French President Francois Hollande recalled Germany's invasion of neutral Belgium in early August 1914 that turned a Balkans war into a global conflagration, raising current day parallels.

"How can we remain neutral today when a people not far from Europe is fighting for their rights?" Hollande said, clearly referring to the Ukraine crisis.

"We cannot remain neutral ... Europe must live up to its responsibilities with the United Nations," he told an audience that included Britain's Prince William and his wife Catherine, heads of state and representatives of some 80 countries.

German President Joachim Gauck said Berlin had launched the war based only on "military logic" and it was immediately apparent that "treaties were worthless and that the standards of civilisation had been rendered null and void".

Prince William recalled the German execution of British nurse Edith Cavell, who just before her death in 1915 said: "I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

"It took another terrible war to learn the truth of her words and even today we continue to learn that lesson," he said.

The leaders gathered in the industrial town of Liege - built on coal and steel - because it barred the way to invading German troops in the early days of August 1914.

Its fierce resistance derailed Berlin's plans for a quick victory, while Germany's invasion of Belgium formally brought Britain into the war, as interlocking alliances that were meant to preserve the peace plunged Europe into the abyss.

The rest is history - 10 million troops dead, 20 million injured, millions of civilian victims, empires toppled, the world remade.

Earlier yesterday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his New Zealand counterpart John Key paid tribute to the tens of thousands of their countries' soldiers who died far from home.

The conflict "was the most cataclysmic event in human history", Abbott said, "and arguably gave rise to communism, to Nazism, to World War II and the cold war".

After Liege, it is the turn of Mons on the French border to remember a do-or-die rearguard action by the first British troops committed to the war. It was there, too, that the last British soldier was killed on November 11, 1918, the day of the Armistice that ended hostilities.

Britain, meanwhile, was to hold a series of ceremonies, with people encouraged to turn off their lights from 10pm to 11pm, inspired by foreign secretary Edward Grey's famous remark on the eve of war. "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime," he said.