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Reliving the days of horror that were the Great War

Larry French • Jul 29, 2014 at 9:20 AM

We have reached that date in history. Monday is the 100th anniversary of the date (July 28, 1914) Austria declared war on Serbia in retaliation for Gavrilo Princip’s (a Serbian nationalist) June 28, 1914, assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Four days later on Aug. 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia, and on Aug. 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany, setting off a chain of events that to this day remains a conundrum.

Why all the major powers went to war 100 years ago depends on one’s interpretation of the events. Even though it would be April 6, 1917, before the United States declared war on Germany, this single assassination appears to have been the lone excuse needed to engage in a great war, and one in which mankind “seemingly welcomed” its ability to “suddenly annihilate” the entire human race.

The declaration of war by Austria not only set the course of history for the 20th century, but also succeeded in defining the tone of the world, as we know it today.

It is a date in history we cannot escape, and for the next 1568 days, the world will relive the battles, horrors and hell of “the war to end all wars,” the Great War.

In addition to the Western Front, the Eastern Front, trench warfare, shell shock, mustard gas, and “going over the top,” it’s the infamous “no man’s land” that will terrify and unnerve us with images of carnage unequalled.

While we will not be destined to live the cataclysmic horror in days, hours nor minutes in rat-infested trenches suffocating from mustard gas attacks as soldiers did, we must for the next 1,568 days, relive and bear witness to their uncompromising relentlessness, no matter how futile it seemed, no matter the consequences.

The Great War was no longer about chivalry and romanticism; it was the world’s first experience into mechanized warfare, man’s first taste of mass carnage, and it became ghastly and incomprehensible. Nevertheless, it did not prevent poets and writers from putting pen to paper as they composed the most thought-provoking words of the 20th century. While at times their words may confound us, they still resonate 100 years later.

Lt. Col. John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields where poppies blow/Between the crosses ... ,” appears as a paradox of irresistible misunderstandings where war was concerned as many soldiers “(Took) up (their) quarrel with the foe.”

Alan Seeger over-romanticized the sacrifices of military service, reminding soldiers that while “(They) have a rendezvous with Death/At some disputed barricade ... Spring comes back ... and will (bring) back blue days and fair.”

It was the poet Wilfred Owen, however, who finally understood that gallantry and quixotism have no place in war when he asked the question, and one that remains unanswered today, “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”

Propaganda existed in every country during the Great War and the ultimate cost of these spoils may be beyond human comprehension. Nevertheless, as long as there are pawns (soldiers and young men), there shall be kings (politicians and old men), and the results will always be fatal. The Great War proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that never before in the history of mankind had life been this expendable.

Why then are we still possessed by the Great War?

Perhaps it’s as journalist John Lichfield said, “The Great War gnaws at our guts and our collective memories (not only) because it was ... fought with murderous inventions, (but because it) was also the first (war) in history in which systematic trouble was taken to give soldiers individuals graves (at least those who could be found and identified).

It would be 1,568 days before the guns would go silent. One thousand, five hundred and sixty eight days would pass before Monday, Nov. 11, 1918, when at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the great massacre, the world’s Great War came to an end.

Ironically, it was not the war to end all wars.

The Greek philosopher Plato said, “It is only the dead who have seen the end of war.” And in terms of the dead, historical accounts state as many as 37 million people worldwide (military and civilian) died in the Great War. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, American casualties were 53,402 battle deaths and 204,002 wounded. There are, however, no soldiers who fought in the Great War living today.

Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, historian and political activist said, “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.”

Yes, we have reached that date in history, and it is a date we cannot escape.

Larry French lives in Butler. He

teaches composition and literature

at East Tennessee State University

and Northeast State Community College. You may reach him at FRENCHL@etsu.edu.

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