This year marks the centennial of the onset of the First World War, a war which ushered in the world that we live today. It was a war which changed warfare, a war which destroyed a long standing social and political order, a war that radically re-drew national boundaries and a war which planted the seeds of both freedom and tyranny, peace and more war. It was a war like no other before it.
It lasted four years and was fought in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia as well as at sea in every corner of the globe. It was a war which introduced humanity to the full effect of industrialized warfare, carnage on a vaster scale than had ever been seen, and the introduction of aircraft, submarines, tanks and poisoned gas as instruments of war. It was the birth of a new era of war.
In terms of the human cost it changed war, amplifying the carnage of the U.S. Civil war by an unimaginable magnitude. Firepower and weaponry had advanced exponentially in the intervening years, but offensive tactics had remained as they were before. Military experts remained in denial about the changes, even when the evidence was before their eyes. Regiments charged into battle shoulder to shoulder, relaying on élan to overcome firepower, the French Army outfitted in bright blue uniforms with red trousers and kepi forage hats valiantly attacking German’s outfitted in field gray. Cavalry retained its place on the battlefield for a brief moment, Uhlans, Lancers, Cuirassiers and Dragoons charged about but found that the modern battlefield was not their place.
Old Generals looked to the past for answers, and found none while remaining in denial about the power of the weapons and technology their troops faced. Field Marshal Douglas Haig said in 1915, after nearly 2 million men had fallen on the Western Front “The machine gun is a much over rated weapon...”
But as the war progressed the instruments of war, particularly the artillery became the weapon of choice for commanders. The symbolism of the massive French Memorial at Verdun, it’s spire shaped like an artillery round is an apt reminder of the power of artillery during the war and the reliance of the combatants on it.
The human cost was horrific. Over 65 million soldiers were called up on all sides of the conflict, of which nearly 37.5 million became casualties, some 57.5% of all soldiers involved. Some countries saw the flower of their manhood, a generation decimated. Russia sustained over 9 million casualties of the 12 million men they committed to the war, a casualty rate of over 76%. The other Allied powers suffered as well. France lost 6.4 million of 8.5 million, or 73%, Great Britain 3.1 million of nearly 9 million, 35%; Italy 2.2 million of 5.6 million, 39%. Their opponents, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered greatly. Germany sustained 7.1 million casualties of 11 million men called up, or nearly 65%, Austria 7 million of 7.8 million, 90% and the Ottoman Empire 975,000 of 2.8 million or 34% of the soldiers that they sent to war.
The United States, though a late entry into the war suffered 323,000 casualties of over 4.3 million men called to arms in barely a year of combat, most occurring in the summer and fall of 1918.
Erich Maria Remarque wrote of the carnage and casualties in All Quiet on the Western Front:
“A man cannot realize that above such shattered bodies there are still human faces in which life goes its daily round. And this is only one hospital, a single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.”
The war brought about the overthrow of Imperial Germany, Imperial Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The resultant break up of those empires brought freedom for some in Europe, a change in colonial masters for others in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, as well as civil war, failed attempts at democracy and the establishment of Communist or Fascist dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Russia.
The promise of a just peace died at the hands of the victors, and the conditions of peace as well as the unrest in Europe eventually brought about another even more horrific Second World War. It was a war to end all war, but the peace became a peace to end all peace.
The young men who fought the war had hoped for better, but it was not to be. T. E. Lawrence, or as he is often known “Lawrence of Arabia” wrote after the war:
“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”
I will be writing a lot about this war in 2014. It is something that we cannot forget. The world today is much like it was in 1914. There have been many small wars in far off places fought by a few professionals of the great powers. Tensions rise as established nations and empires shrink and new powers rise to challenge them. The terrible peace and the borders established by Sykes-Picot continue to bring war and misery to the world today.
What I write will include stories of soldiers, battles, weapons and diplomacy and the cost of war. I will do so because it is still pertinent, it still matters. The terrible costs need to be recounted, because our world could easily fall into a similar tragedy.
British historian Max Hastings wrote about the changes in Europe leading up to the World War, noting that they occurred in approximately the same span of time as have transpired since the attacks of September 11th 2001. Hasting records in his book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War that “Austrian writer Carl von Lang wrote early in 1914: “There is a feeling that events re in the air; all that is unpredictable is their timing. Perhaps we will see several more years of peace, but it is equally possible that overnight some tremendous upheaval will happen.”
Otto von Bismarck prophetically wrote: “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” In July 1914, in the provincial town of Sarajevo, the assassination of an unappreciated and unloved Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, who was likely the one man in that country who would have tried to avoid war, proved to be the match that lit the kindling which set off the conflagration of the First World War.