“The Great War,” the “War to End All Wars!”
The Somme! Ypres! Do those names strike a responsive thought with you?
How about Verdun? Do you know where that is?
Then there are Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thiery, and St. Mihiel - certainly you have heard about them!
If not, perhaps you remember this: 11-11-11.
After more than four bitter, angry, bloodshed-filled years, an Allied army of French and British troops and fresh American doughboys, altogether 6 million strong, forced an armistice with Germany, signed in a railway car at Compiegne in northern France. Finally, the shooting stopped. Hostilities in “The War to End All Wars, or World War I - also once known as “The Great War” - ended at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
Yet, though that war was ended with an armistice, its legacy has not ended. A 1964 Dell paperback, “Combat World War I,” an eyewitness anthology by such well known statesmen as Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence and writers like William Manchester and Hanson Baldwin, said, “World War I is history, but its follies can speak to us across the divide” now nearly a century after it all began.
Of course it still speaks to us. It should.
That war’s follies, described in a foreword “as one of history’s most senseless spasms of carnage” (Adam Hochschild, “To End All Wars,” Houghton, 2011), are detailed, alarming and unforgettable, and its aftermath continues. Northern French farmers still contend with that war’s deadly detritus: Roving bomb disposal specialists called demineurs collect and destroy 900 tons of unexploded munitions - each year! More than 630 have died in that line of duty since 1946.
(For the record, more than 700 million artillery and mortar shells were fired by both sides between 1914-1918 and 15 percent failed to explode - still killing people: 36 in 1991).
And the carnage? One half of all French men aged 20-32 at the war’s outbreak were dead when the armistice was signed on 11-11-1918.
Britain and France alone suffered 2 million dead and 35 percent of German men aged 19 to 22 when fighting began were killed in the next four and a half years. And the wounded: 21 million of all combatants altogether — Allied as well as Central Powers armies. When the war ended, American dead came to 155,000 doughboys.
So, what of this war, its battlefield carnage and devastation?
Its destruction - dead, wounded, missing – was, rather is, mindless, brutal, catastrophic and perhaps needless as history and many writers continue to examine the “Great” War.
War aims, proudly and patriotically proclaimed and often a subterfuge, permit combatants to justify a war’s declaration.
In 1914, France and Germany warily despised each other - the aftermath of another war - the Franco Prussian War of 1870, when Germany led by Bismarck, humiliated the French at Sedan and even occupied Paris, forcing the French to cede the rich industrial provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in a peace treaty that was not rectified, at least in the eyes of the French, until the Versailles Treaty, signed in June 1919 after the Great War ended, giving the provinces back to France.
Great Britain, for its part, “the ruler of the seas” with colonies and dominions often illustrated by the self important and bombastic sounding “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” just as warily eyed a growing German navy.
Military historian John Keegan in “The Price of Admiralty” (Penguin Books, 1988) says that “if a German navy could threaten the Royal navy it would concede to Germany a freedom of action in international politics moving Germany from great power to world power status.”
German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm I, a grandson of Queen Victoria, again according to Mr. Keegan, was “jealous of the reputation of the Royal Navy and envied the power its predominant strength conferred on his Grandmother’s kingdom.”
Germany, after the War of 1870, had ascended to a preeminent land power status in Europe, a role previously held by France. Only Britain and its Navy - as far back as its victory at Trafalgar in October 1805, went “where it chose and do what it would” and challenged Germany, “preventing,” according to the Kaiser, “its freedom of action.”
Another writer, Leon Wolf, author of “In Flanders Fields, the 1917 Campaign” describing only one debacle of the “Great War,” Passchendale, says in his preface that “the Kaiser had a youthful dream to expand German trade, colonies and prestige.”
What ensued, Mr. Wolff says, since “Britain had no intention of being pre-empted by a larger German navy,” became a muddling series of entangling alliances - Germany with Austria-Hungary and Italy - the Triple Alliance against the Entente Cordiale - England, France and Czarist Russia.
All the alliances embraced mutual war aims and the powder keg of armed commitments exploded when a Serbian patriot, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, assassinated Arch Duke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
It took over a month before shots in anger were fired on Aug. 4, 1914 - ultimatums were exchanged as armies needed time to mobilize – and, scant though it was, there were hopes that war could be avoided.
“What followed,” according to Mr. Wolff, “was as swift and purposeful and inevitable as though it made sense. Within a week almost every country in Europe was fighting and in time, practically the whole world joined in.”
Mr. Hochschild asks, “Why does this war intrigue us still?” He answers, “One reason, surely, is the stark contrast between what people believed they were fighting for and the shattered embittered world the war actually created.”
He also says “that on the Allied side there were good reasons: the Germans had invaded France and, violating treaty obligations guaranteeing its neutrality, marched into Belgium as well. People in other countries like Britain … saw coming to the aid of the victims of invasion a noble cause.”
Questions will always remain about the “Great War” and one, always asked as Mr. Hochschild does, is this: “If the major combatants could have looked forward and seen the consequences for the catastrophe it was, would they have so quickly sent their soldiers marching off to battle in 1914?”
“As though it made sense” is another ultimate and universally unanswerable question.
To articulate whatever sense the Great War could be given was left to the war poets, however. “The Poetry of the World Wars” of Michael Foss, (Peter Bedrick Books, 1990) ranges from “rage, pity and disgust as poet/soldiers probed the depths of inhumanity and cruelty of the Great War.”
Mr. Foss says that “war poetry in former times had been largely celebratory, an exercise in patriotism, written by noncombatants.” “Poets of World War One” (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read and Robert Graves to name only a few) “did not celebrate their war service.” To them, Mr. Foss writes, “Since the Great War was grossly inhuman, grossly cruel and grossly bungled, the reaction of the young poets was understandably extreme … and it was their extremity of passion that has made their poems so rich and affecting, adding that they were attempting to redefine war and in doing so to exorcise it.” Would that that could forever be!
Sassoon’s poem “Aftermath“ is the epitaph the ”Great War” needs. It opens with “Have you forgotten yet?” and reminds us to “look down and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”
Now, rightfully, 11-11-11 is Veterans Day - a day Sassoon asks us “to never forget.” All veterans from all wars — World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq - all are given one day to honor their service, their sacrifice, their courage and fortitude to serve when country and duty called.
To them, forever, is owed our freedom, our unparalleled way of life and our peace. To the millions who have served, and more to those who died and bled in our country’s greatest need, in its greatest peril, we shall always owe honor, gratitude and a shining respect which should never be dimmed, falsely used or tainted or forgotten.
We owe this to our veterans, in Sassoon’s ending and hallowed phrase: “Look up and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.”
Author’s note: Robert Lubbers is a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II. Three brothers and one sister also served and survived World War II.