One-hundred years ago today, at 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, The Great War ended.
The Great War. The War to End All Wars. World War I.
A Great War? No, because wars cannot and should not be defined by their greatness.
The War to End All Wars? Regrettably, an ambiguous, contradictory and everlasting pronouncement.
World War I? Yes, however, this requires another unanswerable question. Why did all the major powers go to war more than 100 years ago and what did they expect to achieve? That, of course, depends on one’s interpretation of the events.
Perhaps, it was because Austria declared war on Serbia in retaliation for Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Perhaps, it was because Germany declared war on Russia.
Or, perhaps, it was because Great Britain declared war on Germany, thereby setting off a chain of events which to this day remains a conundrum.
And, even though it would be April 6, 1917, before the United States declared war on Germany, it is conceivable that “that” single assassination in 1914 was the only excuse needed for the world to engage in “a great war,” an unavoidable and unjustifiable war, and one in which mankind seemingly welcomed its ability to suddenly annihilate the entire human race.
A declaration of war by Austria not only set the course of history for the 20th century, but more than that, succeeded in defining the tone of the world as we know it today.
While propaganda existed in every country during The Great War, the ultimate cost of these spoils is 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 ruinous. The Great War proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that never before in the history of mankind had life been this expendable.
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.”
Yes, The Great War was fought by great men (doughboys), and many great men died as a result. Those great men, however, did not die in vain; they fought and died for a cause they believed in.
For many, though, The Great War has become nothing more than a distant memory, yet there are those who argue The Great War is not distant enough, still too fresh in our memories to understand or comprehend the devastation, death and hatred brought about by the world’s first mechanized war. Perhaps it is our misunderstanding, our inability to comprehend the incomprehensible which prevents us from looking beyond today or tomorrow.
Insofar as we continue our struggles to understand The Great War, British journalist, John Lichfield offers an interesting counter argument regarding those memories.
“The First World War does not grow old, as other wars grow old,” Lichfield said. “Age does not weary our memories, even if the years condemn.”
However, it does create “a great enigma,” and begs the question; why is there an increased desire to understand and comprehend the incomprehensibility of The Great War among common ordinary people?
Why then are we still possessed by The Great War?
“The Great War gnaws at our guts and collective memories,” Lichfield said. “It was the war that shaped the modern world. The war was the culmination of a 19th century (which) increased (the) productive — and destructive — power of mankind beyond the scope of dreams and nightmares. It was a war fought with murderous inventions ... machine guns, high-powered artillery, poison gas, tanks, warplanes and fragmentation shells.”
While we, the living, the descendants of those who fought in The Great War cannot relive the cataclysmic horror in rat-infested trenches suffocating and drowning from mustard gas attacks or facing down “murderous inventions” in “no man’s land” as soldiers did; we must, however, bear witness to their uncompromising relentlessness, no matter how futile, no matter the consequences.
The Great War was not about quixotism; it was the world’s first experience into mechanized warfare, man’s first taste of mass carnage, and it became — and remains — ghastly incomprehensible.
At 11 a.m. today, bells will again toll commemorating the end of The Great War.
It is not a time to celebrate. It is a time to reflect — perhaps, to pause — perhaps, to remember — and to never forget.
Dona eis requiem sempiternam
Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, the Society of Professional Journalists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University. You may reach him at [email protected]