The Great War: 6 Silver Coins from the First World War (WWI) 

The years 2014 -18 mark the centennial of World War I, the global conflict known at the time as the Great War. This collection features silver coins minted by six nations embroiled in the conflict, all in circulation during the war.  

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, paid a state visit to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. Although the Balkans were under imperial control, the trip was fraught with danger. The city was honeycombed with operatives of the Serbian secret society called “Unification or Death,” commonly known as The Black Hand, which sought independence from the Habsburg monarchy. And lo, danger found the Archduke.

An attempt to throw a grenade into his car along the motorcade route was foiled, but later that day, after a wrong turn onto a side road, Franz Ferdinand and his wife were gunned down by a Bosnian assassin named Gavrilo Princip. As a result of the assassination, the Habsburg monarchy was indeed overthrown, just as Princip wanted but not before the major European powers would fight the worst and most deadly war the world had ever seen.  

The Archduke was not a sympathetic figure to his people, or even to his father, the Emperor Franz Josef. But Austro-Hungary used the assassination as a pretext to declare war on Serbia, despite the fact that the same secret society deemed responsible for killing Franz Ferdinand had assassinated the Serbian royal family in 1903. When Austro-Hungary’s egregious ultimatum was rejected by Serbia, as was expected, the former declared war on the latter.   

But the nations of 1914 Europe did not exist in a vacuum. A dizzying array of international treaties bound the countries together; these so-called “entangled alliances” would accelerate the spread of war. Russia, which had pledged to come to Serbia’s defense, mobilized its forces to do just that. Germany, an ally of Austro-Hungary, then declared war on Russia, and that led France and Great Britain to enter the fray in the service of a tsarist government that would itself be overthrown three years later. By the late summer of 1914, most of Europe was engaged in a war whose real origins remain the subject of debate to this day.

For over three years, the Central Powers of Germany along with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires fought the Allied forces of Great Britain, France, and Russia to a bloody standstill. In 1917, the tsarist government of Russian fell to the Bolsheviks, and Russia abruptly quit the war. The entry of the United States into the conflict that same year finally turned the tide, providing the Allies the needed jolt to defeat Germany.  

One of the ironies of the war is that many of the monarchs ruling the various nations were all related by blood. The German Kaiser Wilhelm I (“Willy”) was the cousin of the British King George V (“Georgie”) and of the Russian tsar Nicholas II (“Nicky”); they were also related to the royal families of Norway, Romania, and Spain. Although the three kings communicated often during the war, their family ties did little to stem the inevitable tide of war.  

The war left Great Britain, once the war’s great banker, in deep financial difficulty; France, embittered and vengeful; Russia, in the hand of the Bolshevik revolutionaries; and Germany deep in debt, which subsequently they attempted to solve by printing money and causing terrible hyperinflation. By the end of the war, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires had all collapsed, and some 37 million human beings became casualties.

When the smoke cleared, the appetite for war in Europe had been sated for the foreseeable future or so it seemed. No one could have foretold that an even more catastrophic war was right around the corner.

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