Tuesday, April 1, 2014

World War I Centennial

Commander K. at Guards Memorial
St. James Park, London

"The World breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places."  Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

This year we mark the centennial of the start of World War I - 1914 to 2014.  This devastating war was a catastrophe that very nearly broke the fabric of Western civilisation.  The war claimed more than 16 million lives including over 116,000 Americans (A staggering 26X more than the total 4,427 American combat deaths of the Iraq war!) and over a million from the British Empire.  Is civilisation itself, as Hemingway might suggest, now stronger at the "broken places," the "fault lines" of this terrible conflict?  Well, perhaps.  We know, however, that Wilson's "war to end all wars" did not work out quite as intended.

WWI Munitions
Great War Museum, Cortina, IT
Even in the year 2014, one hundred years on, we are still seeing tangible reverberations from the First World War.  Two construction workers in Belgium were killed this year by unexploded munitions from this conflict http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2584568/First-World-War-bomb-kills-two-construction-site-workers-100-years-fired-Belgian-battlefield.html.

We also know that chemical weapons used in World War I continue to contaminate the water table of Belgium making it unsafe for infants to drink the local tap water http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-26678759.
Last Flight of the Hapsburg Eagle
Great War Museum, Cortina, IT
The decision to launch a war is fateful and pregnant with long term consequences which are almost impossible for participants to foresee.  Four Empires -- Tsarist Russia, Imperial Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire -- would all cease to exist as a result of the First World War.

WWI Pilot, San Cassiano, IT
The First World War would transform the waging of war from an aristocratic semi-feudal undertaking into an major industrial enterprise.  This war would see the dawn of military aviation (see...http://americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/the-red-baron.html), submarine warfare and the use of chemical weapons.  It was the First World War that gave birth to the "Military Industrial Complex" as described much later by President Eisenhower.
Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph
Fort Tre Sassi, Cortina, IT
The war started in Sarajevo when a nineteen year-old Serbian Gavrilo Princip fired the pistol that assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie.  TheArchduke's last words were, "Sophie, Sophie, don't die -- stay alive for our children."  Austria-Hungary, bent on avenging the death of their crown Prince, immediately mobilized its armed forces to confront Serbia.  Tsarist Russia felt compelled to mobilize to defend her Slav ally Serbia.  The Kaiser's Imperial Germany gave Austria a blank check to use force in the Balkans.  France was bound by treaty to assist Russia.  The invasion of Belgium made British participation inevitable.  Kaiser Wilhelm II had rolled the "iron dice"... and would lose everything.
A Necessary War
Max Hastings has rendered the reading public a great service with his new volume Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (www.amzn.com/0307597059).  Hastings demolishes the popular notion (the "Black Adder theory of history" he labels it) that the First World War was simply a pointless, muddy slaughter.  In the final analysis, the Central Powers were chiefly responsible for the outbreak of war.  Wilhelm II, who had been building up his navy for years, sought an excuse to go to war and turmoil in the Balkans furnished one.   The Kaiser's Empire was an autocracy that had already waged a genocide in German Southwest Africa (Namibia today) between 1904 and 1907 that claimed the lives of over 75,000 people.  Over 6,000 Belgian civilians were killed as a matter of German policy in the opening months of the war.
Commander K., Great War Museum
Fort Tre Sassi, Cortina, Italy 
In 1915 Italy, who had previously been allied to the Central Powers.  Italy sold her soul for territorial gains.  She fought a terrible war that cost her 460,000 dead and won her Trieste and Cortina.  A war that began in the Balkans and goring on in the trenches of the Western front would also be fought in the high altitudes of the Alps and Dolomites (see www.cortinamuseoguerra.it).  Avalanches would claim many lives as well as combat.

WWI Winter Warrior
Great War Museum, Cortina, IT
In 1917 Tsarist Russia dropped out of the war and was consumed by a Revolution that brought Lenin to power.

That same year President Wilson led the U.S. into the war on the side of the Triple Entente.  There were four major factors driving Wilson's decision.  First, the Kaiser had launched unrestricted submarine warfare that led to the sinking of merchant ships such as the Lusitania.  Second, Germany had committed atrocities in its invasion of neutral Belgium executing many civilians and even a British nurse (See...http://americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/edith-cavell.html).  Third, Germany had clumsily plotted to ally herself with Mexico in the event of a U.S. intervention (Zimmerman telegram).  Finally, Allied arms purchases had stimulated the American economy and made them substantial debtors to U.S. financial institutions.

Hastings writes, "The Americans accession of strength more than compensated for the Russian's retirement from the conflict in March 1918."  (Source: Catastrophe 1914: Europe goes to War, Max Hastings, 2014).

"Johnny Get Your Gun"
Great War Museum, Cortina, IT
A staggering four million doughboys were shipped "over there" to Europe from 1917 to 1918.  Consider that number for just a moment.  Today we regard George H.W. Bush's deployment of 500,000 Allied troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990 (Operation Desert Shield) as "massive".  The deployment of General "Black Jack" Pershing's American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to Europe was 8X greater and it was all handled by the transportation technology of the early 20th century -- the same transportation technology that was responsible for the Titanic.  The Americans set up naval and air bases in Ireland, a British dominion at the time, to protect all the shipping that passed through the Irish sea from the Kaiser's marauding submarines.

In 1918 Ernest Hemingway from Oak Brook, Illinois went "over there," volunteering to serve as an ambulance assistant on the Italian front.  He was wounded by a mortar shell and spent six months in hospital recovering.  His First World War novel, A Farewell to Arms, was published in 1929 (www.amzn.com/0684801469).

Hastings writes, "It would be entirely mistaken to suppose, as do so many people in the twenty-first century, that it did not matter which side won.  The Allies imposed a clumsy peace settlement at Versailles in 1919, but it f the Germans had instead been dictating the terms as victors, European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit.  Germany adopted territorial war aims in the course of the First World War which were were not much less ambitious than those favoured by its ruler in the Second.  It thus seems quite wrong to describe the undoubted European tragedy of 1914-18 also futile, a view overwhelmingly driven in the eyes of posterity by the human cost of the military experience.  If the Kaiserreich did not deserve to triumph, those who fought and died in the ultimately successful struggle to prevent such an outcome did not perish for nothing, save insofar as all sacrifice in all wars is just cause for lamentation."

Source: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, Max Hastings, 2013 (www.amzn.com/0307597059)

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Anonymous said...

War is always necessary.
War brings peace.
Peace comes.

James Hooper said...

Good post. I came late to an appreciation of how pervasive the WW1 experience is across Europe. Memorials to our "glorious war dead" are ubiquitous in the EU; quite different from the occasional town square monument found in the US.

The quote that put the war into its most stark perspective foe me follows:

"An attempt was made in the immediate aftermath of the First World War to represent in visual terms what the Empire’s loss meant (Courage Remembered by Edwin Gibson and G. Kingsley Ward, 1989):

Imagine [the dead] moving in one continuous column, four abreast. As the head of that column reaches the Cenotaph in London, the last four men would be in Durham [240 miles away, in the north of England]. In Canada that column would stretch across the land from Quebec to Ottawa; in Australia, from Melbourne to Canberra; in South Africa, from Bloemfontein to Pretoria; in New Zealand, from Christchurch to Wellington; in Newfoundland, from coast to coast; and in India, from Lahore to Delhi. [I might interpolate for an American audience: in the United States, from Boston to Philadelphia.] It would take those million men eighty-four hours, or three-and-a-half days, to march past the Cenotaph in London."

Jon Shields said...

Excellent post. The centennial -- good idea to reflect on the Great War.

This is an excellent recent book that reveal much about the reasons for the war, while focusing on its often overlooked detractors: http://www.amazon.com/End-All-Wars-Rebellion-1914-1918-ebook/dp/B004X7TKUM/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1