For the January 2014 edition of As I See It, Doug Kutilek wrote up an interesting essay highlighting the 100th anniversary of World War 1, that officially started in June of 1914.
World War 1 was a subject I rarely, if every recall studying in high school. I can’t even remember if I studied it in college. When I was visiting relatives in Kansas City a number of years ago, we walked around the World War 1 memorial that is quite majestic if you haven’t seen it. Other than hearing about an assassinated archduke and Snoopy hunting the Red Baron, my knowledge of the war is rather bare. I thought other folks could benefit from reading this essay as well.
From 1961 to 1965, when I was a pupil in grades 3 to 7, the centennial of the American Civil War (a.k.a., “the War of Northern Aggression”) was “celebrated,” with numerous observances, speeches, books, published articles, souvenirs and the like. It sparked in me a great and abiding interest in those monumental events, an interest that persists even now. There are dozens of books on my shelves on the Civil War that I have read through and an additional twenty or thirty more books on Civil War topics that I desperately want to read, if I only could make the time to do so.
Now that we have arrived at and are in the midst of the sesquicentennial of those events, there is apparently precious little public interest in or attention drawn to those historic days. Why, even the current Chief Executive opted out of attending observances of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, arguably the greatest speech delivered on this continent.
To what can we ascribe this monumental indifference? In part, it must be laid at the feet of the general “dumbing own” of the average American who was mis-educated in government schools obsessed with social engineering and political correctness, instead of providing a thorough knowledge of history, language, science and literature. It may also be in part due to a widespread societal pre-occupation with self and the present, and a general indifference and disdain for ‘dead events of long-dead eras.’ It seems at times that the only people who reference American history of a century and half ago are the professional race-baiters who traffic in stirring up discontent and specialize in blaming everyone but themselves and their chosen constituents for their failure to prosper in a free society (in denouncing America’s slave past, they seem to have missed the fact that slavery ended 150 years ago, and the present-day fifth- and sixth-generations of descendants of slaves are personally responsible–and as the case may be, blameworthy–for their conduct and their life-outcomes).
Another historic anniversary that occurred simultaneously with the Civil War centennial observances was the semi-centennial of “the Great War,” as it was originally dubbed, but which subsequent events required renaming as “World War I.” That, the first general war in Europe in almost a century, began in the summer of 1914, triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, who was assassinated along with his wife on June 28 in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. I don’t recall a single public observance, ceremony, speech or major publication that drew attention to that war being made between 1964 and 1968. I do recall my father telling me about the armistice that occurred on November 11, 1918 (11-11 at 11 a.m.).
I wonder if there will be the same gross, and fool-hearty indifference to World War I during its centennial as there was in the 1960s, and as there is at present regarding the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War? It is utter folly to fail to note and learn from those events that did so much to shape the course of nations in Europe, and the world.
The world before the Great War was one marked by great empires– the British Empire that covered a fourth of the planet, Czarist Russia with the largest contiguous land mass, Prussian-dominated united Germany, the Austria-Hungary dual monarchy with its cacophony of languages and ethnicities, the French (especially in North Africa), and the Ottoman Turk occupying most of the Middle East. Each of these empires was either absolutely destroyed (Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman) or greatly reduced in power and wealth and set on an irreversible course of dissolution during or as a consequence of the Great War. Hereditary monarchies, the ruling paradigm in Europe for many centuries, all but disappeared, leaving only a few figurehead kings or queens. And out of the wreckage of one of those fallen empires (Russia) arose the Soviet tyranny that oppressed and killed millions and threaten millions more for 70 years.
Though the war began in mid-summer 1914 and quickly involved most of the major countries of Europe, the United States was not directly involved militarily until early 1917 (after Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 with the campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war”), though we were a heavy supplier of arms to the Allies (Britain, France, Italy, Russia and other nations). Before the U. S. declared war on the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey), some Americans had become war casualties due to German u-boat predations in the Atlantic. Indeed, it was German attacks on U. S. cargo and passenger ships that drew the U.S. into the war.
As a boy, I knew no veterans of that war (they would have been in their 70s or 80s during the semi-centennial). My maternal grandfather, in his late-twenties at America’s entrance into war, had a draft deferment due to his working in the pressroom of a local Wichita newspaper. My paternal grandfather turned 17 one month after war ended (and turned 40 the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; talk about dodging the draft bullet!). His father, a 16-year-old immigrant from Bohemia to America in 1892 (to escape, according to family legend, mandatory service in the army of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef) was eligible for and registered for the draft (I have seen a photo of his draft registration), though he was in his early forties when America entered the war, was married and had four children, and so was never drafted.
The war came because the nations of Europe were itching for a fight. The Darwinian notion of “survival of the fittest” in the continuing struggle for existence in the world of biology had been extrapolated and applied to the affairs of nations and of races. As Darwin himself had stated, so it was generally accepted by the intelligentsia of Europe, that there were superior human races, and hence superior nations; and all mankind (meaning, the “superior” races) would be best served by the suppression and eventual elimination of those races deemed to be inferior (to Darwin, this meant the sallow-, brown- and black-skinned peoples of Asia and Africa, along with others; see “Charles Darwin, Racist,” As I See It 12:7). To the Germans, it meant, among others, the Slavs.
Since the diverse animal species of earth were purportedly continually undergoing improvement and advancement via this unending struggle to the death, would not the same apply to nations? If struggle is the driving force for evolutionary advancement and good, and since there is no greater human struggle than war, then war must be in essence and ultimately a great good, since it allows the superior peoples and nations to conquer, subjugate and eliminate in short order the inferior races and nations who are a drag on evolutionary progress. This kind of thinking was commonplace in the German military high command of the day, and elsewhere.
There were also a series of inter-locking alliances that guaranteed armed intervention by all signatory nations if any one of them was attacked by some foreign power. As a consequence, the assassination in the Balkans followed by Austria-Hungary’s retaliation for it to quickly escalated into a continent-wide war involving all the European empires.
Since then-recent European wars has been generally limited, quick and relatively unbloody affairs (such as the Franco-Prussia war of 1870/1), it was assumed that any war would be short and sweet and more than compensated for by the gains in territory, colonies and resources. But it is a truism that generals and admirals are always preparing for the previous war, and consequently technological advancement overwhelmed the “best laid plans” of the military high commands of the various belligerent nations.
Prepared to wage war on horseback and foot, the generals soon found themselves in a mechanized war with airplanes, first used for reconnaissance then for bombing and strafing, and mobile “artillery” in the form of tanks. The war witnessed the first widespread use of automatic weapons–machine guns–as well as barbed wire, poisonous gas attacks, land-mines, flame-throwers and massed long-range artillery, and on the seas, torpedo-armed submarines. The resultant wholly unexpected carnage was unimaginable.
Almost immediately on the Western front, a more or less stagnant line of opposing trenches developed. Repeated massive artillery barrages followed by infantry attacks, counter-attacks and counter-counter-attacks left unfathomable thousands and tens of thousands dead in single engagements, with some months’ long campaigns consuming hundreds of thousands of lives to gain just a small advance in the lines. For more than four barbaric and brutal years, the armies slugged it out, with the men in the frontlines serving as fodder for cannon and bomb and bullet. All told and on all fronts, the insatiable maw of death devoured 20 million combatants and civilians.
Though such an immense price in blood and wealth was paid for the folly of going to war in the 1910s, yet the nations of Europe repeated the folly just two decades later in a much larger, more costly and utterly wasteful conflict that took six years to spend it fury at the cost of some 54 million lives.
How could such vast self-inflicted slaughter and desolation occur in that section of the globe that had achieved the greatest advances in human knowledge, technology, and material well-being? And then be repeated and bested by a longer and much more horrendous war just a generation later? No doubt its causes must be sought for in the corrupt nature of man, individually and collectively, and the onset and continuation of the war is stark testimony to the evil of men and the folly of nations. And behind it all was a general culture-wide disregard for God (a remarkable exception was the spontaneous Christmas truce in 1914, with the singing of Christmas carols, fraternization between German and British soldiers, even exchanging of gifts. But that is a whole study in and of itself).
I have read Martin Gilbert’s excellent The First World War (1994; 615 pp.), which was reviewed in As I See It 1:12 and which I very highly recommend as likely the best history of the war in a single volume. Had I not already read it through, I would be taking it up during the centennial of the Great War. I have also read biographies of numerous individuals that participated in that war (usually constituting a prologue to later achievements)–Churchill, MacArthur, Truman, Eisenhower, Patton, Alvin York, and even George Truett and Gipsy Smith (who ministered to troops) and several others, and tried to wade through Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about the events that led to the war (I find myself simply unable to read her writings). Even so, I plan to revisit those events with further timely reading this year. My chosen guide will be Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis in a one-volume abridgement (866 pp., reprinted by Scribner’s, 1992) of the original 4-volume set penned by Churchill in the decade after the war. And should my interest be further stimulated by Churchill, I have several shorter topical studies of the war close at hand.