On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent across Western Europe and the war which had killed 16 million soldiers, sailors and civilians and wounded another 21 million more came to an end. It had begun as a conflict in the Balkans which rapidly drew in all of Europe’s major powers. The central focus of the war was the Western Front where the armies of Germany battled those of Britain, France, Belgium and later the United States. Battles with names such as the Marne, Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, Chateau Thierry, Belleau Wood, Vimy Ridge, Cambrai, the Aisne, represented the pinnacle of killing as soldiers battled in the mud of massive trench systems and Generals sacrificing thousands of men in a day for the gain of a few hundred yards of territory throwing them against mountains of barbed wire, landmines, well emplaced machine gun nests and mortars. Massed batteries of artillery tore men to shreds leaving many men so pulverized that they would ever be identified. Poison gas both choking agents and the long lasting mustard gas added to the hell that was the war in the West.
During the war the war Imperial Russia had fallen to a Communist revolt and surrendered, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell in October of 1918 and even the Allies had faced near calamity on the home front. In 1917 the French Army mutinied after years of futility with only Marshal Petain the hero of Verdun able to quell it.
Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated his throne on November 9th amid a revolution at home which tore the country apart. The new German Government accepted an armistice in the belief that the Allies would honor President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points. Instead they were subjected to humiliation and starvation as the Allies refused to end their blockade of Germany until the Peace Treaty was signed. Hundreds of thousands more Germans died as a result of starvation and disease as their cities were wracked by violence as order collapsed. It was the Socialist government which had inherited the country that had to fight the Communists in the streets allying themselves with the Army High Command to form Freikorps from units and individual soldiers under commanders willing to fight.
In France at the Palace of Versailles the Allies led by the British and French brushed aside Wilson’s attempt at a just peace and placed draconian sanctions on the new German Republic which had no choice but to accept the surrender terms dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. The Army was to be reduced to 100,000 men with no heavy weapons, the Navy to a token force of obsolete ships, the air force disbanded. Massive war reparations were imposed which were impossible for the Germans to fulfill and which were only paid off this year. The final ignominy was the fact that the Germans were forced to bear the sole responsibility for the war. The German economy collapsed in the aftermath, France occupied key German industrial areas in the Saar and Ruhr and the nation fell into more disorder as the Deutschmark lost all of its value as hyperinflation made the money worthless.
Eventually order returned to Germany with a brief period of relative prosperity which lasted until the world-wide Great Depression which through Germany back into chaos. Government after government was formed and dissolved and the last Chancellors of the Republic were forced to rule under the emergency conditions of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. Eventually extremists on the left and the right brought further chaos as the eventually leading President Hindenburg to appoint the Leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) or NSDAP as Chancellor. We know the rest of the story. A World War that killed far more than the first 22-25 million military and 62-78 million civilians, a war of extermination on the Eastern Front, the Holocaust, and fearful weapons which ushered in the Atomic and Nuclear age. Europe was shattered, Britain’s wealth drained and empire unsustainable, France divided and impoverished and other nations in political or economic crisis with the Soviets controlling Eastern Europe behind an Iron Curtain.
In Europe and Asia a “Cold War” between the Soviet Communists and the West took the place of the previous war. The United States would fight wars in Korea and Vietnam while the Soviets would rule with an iron fist in Eastern Europe and at the height of the Cold War invaded Afghanistan. The wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan caused crisis in both the United States and the Soviet Union and Afghanistan helped mark the end of Soviet power and the end of the Soviet Union.
Around the world colonial empires fell through either revolts of colonized people or the abdication of empire by nations exhausted and economically broken by war. The many of the newly free “nations” were artificial and as a result experienced their own civil, tribal and religious conflicts the effects of which are still felt. The end of the Cold war brought more change and for a time there was a period of American superiority but wars engulfed the Middle East as Iraq attacked its neighbors and was defeated in the Gulf War. However the effects of that war were felt as Moslem extremists took power in Afghanistan and others including the Yemeni born Saudi Osama Bin Laden began a campaign of terror to drive the United States out of the Middle East that culminated in the attacks of September 11th 2001 and now the war that seems to have no end.
And it was the War to end all war and a peace that ended all hope of peace….God help us as it is unlikely that this war will end anytime soon for us or our allies even if we withdraw from Afghanistan. Our enemies are too beholden to their ideology to stop their attacks until they win or are destroyed, the war will continue and God only knows how many soldiers and civilians will die in the coming years over 90 years after the War to end all War ended and the Peace to end all Peace began.