In a room at the National Portrait Gallery in London, a small black-and-white photograph of a teenager sits opposite grand paintings of emperors and kings. “There’s George V at the head of the British Empire, and Wilhelm II, the German Emperor; Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I; Tsar Nicholas II of Russia; and Archduke Franz Ferdinand – all in splendid gold frames, all looking remarkably impressive in their uniforms and their gold,” says Paul Moorhouse, curator of a new exhibition, The Great War in Portraits.
On another wall hangs the press photograph of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old postman’s son who assassinated Franz Ferdinand and his wife in June 1914. “He is – in a sense – responsible for the downfall of the others,” says Moorhouse. “By the end of World War I, three empires are in ruins – Austria, Russia and Germany – and Britain’s empire was severely weakened and never recovered. It’s extraordinary that one man can do that.” While emphasising that Princip was the catalyst for the conflict, not its cause, Moorhouse believes these contrasting images reveal much about the underlying tensions that erupted in 1914. “If you look at these portraits, you see some of the conditions that were created which allowed the war to break out. And central to those conditions was imperial pride, rivalry and hubris.” (Photo: Imperial War Museums)