The day the world changed

By Professor Hugh White AO

War came so fast a century ago, and so unexpectedly, and everything changed so completely when it came, that it still shocks one today.

It still seems extraordinary how swiftly the people of 1914 lost the world they knew, plunging headlong into a very different world, and for each of them a very different life.

In 1914, my mother's father, Patrick Trier, was an 18-year-old midshipman - officer trainee - serving in HMS Centurion, one of the four superdreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy's Second Battle Squadron.

These were the newest and most powerful warships of the greatest navy in the world.

As a midshipman he was required to keep a log.

It is a big stout leather-bound book, which now sits on my desk. Its drily factual record of shipboard life is enlivened with his own impressions, and gives a vivid sense of what he saw as the war came.

As it happened, he witnessed some of the dramatic scenes in those last weeks and days of peace.

At the end of June 1914, the Second Battle Squadron made a goodwill visit to the German navy's main base at Kiel.

They were there for the annual summertime festivities of Kiel Week.

The Kaiser was there too, enjoying the parties, racing in his yacht, and inspecting the British warships.

But on Sunday, 28 June, a pall fell on the festivities, which my grandfather recorded in these laconic terms.

''6pm half-masted colours and hoisted Austrian ensign at the dip on receiving news of the assassination of the crown prince of Austria and his Consort.''

The news had travelled fast: the archduke was shot only a few hours before. The next day the log records:

''Noon. Fired a mourning salute. 4.10 furled awnings and prepared ship for sea. Kaiser struck his flag in [his yacht] the Hohenzollern and left Kiel for the funeral of the archduke and his consort.''

As Centurion sailed home that on Tuesday, 30 June, my grandfather wrote:

''Proceeded out of harbour with remainder of squadron. As each German ship was passed the national anthem was played and 3 cheers given. Set course as requisite for Portland.

"Thus terminated a highly successful week ... The fact that the squadron has left so many quickly-formed but sincere friends speaks volumes for the manner in which Kiel received us.''

On Thursday, 23 July, while Centurion joined mock sea battles in the English Channel, Austria finally handed Serbia an ultimatum over the archduke's assassination, and the swift slide into war began.