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1914: The Beginning of a Century of War


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. 


Padre Steve+

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Remembering Armistice Day: A Day of Conscience


“Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace…” General Omar Bradley November 10th 1948, Boston Massachusetts. 

It was the “War to End All War” or so thought President Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists. However that war to end all wars birthed a series of wars which made the losses of the First World War fade into insignificance as wars of ideology replaced wars for the preservation of the state.

In the First World War there were over 22 million casualties including over 5 million dead of which over 116,000 were Americans. President Woodrow Wilson established what we know now as Veteran’s Day as Armistice Day in November 1919, a year after the guns went silent.

Wilson wrote: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

That initial proclamation was followed nearly 40 years later by one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed into law what we now know as Veteran’s Day in 1954. In a sense I wish we had two holidays, one for Veterans from all wars in general and this one which we should never forget. It seems that in combining them we have lost some of the sacredness of the original. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” I will remember all who served this weekend but I will not forget why we do so.

All that being said for many in the United States and Western Europe the experience of  or even the thoughts of such a bloodletting is unimaginable. Yet to those of us who have gone to war and studied past wars the end result is not so distant. It is a part of our lives even today.

This weekend marks the 95th anniversary of the end in World War One.  For the United States the cost in the short time that its forces went into action and the armistice it was costly, though not nearly as costly as it was for the nations of Europe. From the time United States forces went into action in 1917 116,516 Americans were killed, 204,002 wounded, and 4,500 missing; 7.1% of the force of 4,355,000 the nation mobilized for war. (PBS the Great War UNC TV http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html)

However our costs pale in comparison with the European nations who had for over four years bled themselves dry.  If one wonders why Europeans seem to have so little desire for involvement in war one only needs to see how the concentrated killing of the First World War decimated the best and brightest of that generation. Out of nearly 8.5 million Frenchmen mobilized lost 1,357,000 killed, 4,266,000 wounded and 537,000 missing, 6,160,000 casualties or 73.3% of its forces. Other nations has similar casualty figures.

The human costs were horrifying. In all over over 65 million men served under arms in the war. Over 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded, 7.75 million missing or prisoners or almost 37.5 million casualties. That total would be roughly equivalent to every citizen of the 30 largest American cities being killed, wounded or missing.

Much of Europe was devastated, mass numbers of refugees the dissolution of previously stable empires, civil wars, border conflicts between new states with deep seated ethnic hatreds, economic disasters and the rise of totalitarian regimes which spawned another even more costly world war and a 40 year cold war. The bitter results of the First World War are still felt today as conflicts in the Middle East in part fueled by the decisions of Britain and France at the end of the war rage on.

The epic war poem In Flanders Fields written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea symbolizes the cost of that war and the feelings of the warriors who endured its hell.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Yes there are always consequences to actions. This weekend as we remember what we now call Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day in Britain let us not forget that the genus of these holidays was the blood shed by so many in places like Verdun, Gallipoli, Caporetto, Passchendaele, the Marne, the Argonne, Tannenberg, Galicia and on Flanders Fields.

flanders field

President John F Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

In the hope of peace and an end to war.


Padre Steve+

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