Consequences of Great War still linger

November 11, 2018

At 11 o’clock on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, the guns along the Western Front in Europe fell silent. It was “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” Eighty-five years later, a 104-year-old British veteran of the Great War recalled that not only was the unexpected hush jarring, the sudden realization that “we had no objective, nothing whatsoever to do!” unnerved the stunned infantrymen.

With the signing of an armistice, four years of bloodshed were over. What remained was that eerie stillness — and a landscape of utter desolation. After the initial shock, exhausted soldiers crawled one final time from their respective trenches to meet on the battlefield, not as enemies now but as fellow survivors.

The Great War (which, in the context of a second global conflict, came to be known as World War I) broke out in late July 1914 — one of the loveliest summers in recent memory. The death toll was staggering: nearly 20 million civilians and combatants — not including millions felled by the 1918 influenza pandemic. Countless battlefield casualties were never found.

It had started with a seeming pinprick in the Balkans. On June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Bosnia (recently annexed by Austria-Hungary), the Austro-Hungarian crown prince was assassinated by a disturbed Bosnian-Serb teenager. From that unfortunate incident, precariously balanced international dominoes began to tumble, and within six weeks hostilities erupted across the planet.

Europe had not experienced a full-blown continental war since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. For almost 100 years, the “Concert of Europe” kept peace through balance-of-power diplomacy and strategic alliances. But by 1900, these coalitions were hardening into two hostile blocs: a powerful imperial Germany and her weaker partner Austria-Hungary versus Russia and France (with Great Britain a sympathetic associate) — this as surging industrial-militarism swept across Europe.

An attack on one member of an alliance obligated its partners to come to its defense, so when Austria declared war on Serbia to avenge Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s murder, she had the assurance of Germany’s backing. Immediately, Russia mobilized to defend her Slavic protégé Serbia; then Germany declared war on Russia and France. After Germany’s illegal invasion of neutral Belgium to access the “soft” route into France, England declared war on Germany.

Though the conflict engulfed the entire world — on land, on (and under) sea, and in the air —the principal killing fields were Europe’s mobile Eastern Front and static Western Front — primarily the latter, where a 480-mile line of enemy trenches was separated by open ground dubbed “No Man’s Land.”

In areas of Belgium and France occupied by German troops, generals on both sides obstinately insisted on offensive assaults that yielded little and produced stupefying casualties. Moreover, in this deadlocked theater, an area captured by one’s battalion on Tuesday might be retaken by the enemy’s on Wednesday.

In the United States, which had remained (technically) neutral since 1914, President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” With Germany’s increasing acts of aggression against the U.S., though, a reluctant president on April 2, 1917 successfully petitioned Congress to declare war against the German Empire. For the idealistic Wilson, American engagement was predicated on a moral principle, immortalized in his phrase “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Postwar, a new paradigm would be established through a peacekeeping body to be called the League of Nations, so that principalities would henceforth resolve disputes not by arms but by arbitration.

Early in 1918, the German Army nearly achieved victory with a massive offensive on the Western Front. Its generals, though, could not exploit their gains, and by late autumn — with almost 2 million American troops in the field — their gamble failed.

And so, as dawn broke on Nov. 11, German and Allied delegates signed the Armistice in Compiègne, France. Six hours later, the war was over.

During the following months, Allied leaders crafted the crippling, extortionate Treaty of Versailles, which was forced on Germany on June 28, 1919. Woodrow Wilson’s plea for more reasonable terms cut no ice with his French and British colleagues, who insisted that their vanquished foe pay dearly for “war guilt.” Germany indeed bled for 12 years, but in 1933 she stormed back — reinvented, rearmed, and resentful — under the brutal but popular dictator, Adolf Hitler.

World War II began six years later.

Scholars still debate the legacy of the Great War. One thing is indisputable: We live today with its consequences, good, bad and unresolved. Countless books have been written about it; many combatants from both sides, including the iniquitous Hitler, later became famous. In 1917, a charismatic Russian radical, Vladimir Lenin, returned from Switzerland to his native land, where he started a revolution that “shook the world,” and launched communism as a global force.

Certain outcomes and principles resulted from the wreckage: democratic nation-states were created from collapsed empires; the League of Nations was founded (which, though it dissolved in 1946, was succeeded by the United Nations); America was internationally proclaimed a beacon of hope; human rights were formally acknowledged.

At the same time, the world became a more dangerous place, with escalating fascism in Europe; rising tribal and religious fanaticism in global hotspots; and the emergence of two superpowers whose opposing ideologies ushered in the 44-year Cold War.

The battlefields of Western Europe, still hallowed ground for many, have mostly recovered and reverted to the timeless landscapes they once were, though the trenches’ grass-covered contours remain visible. Many cities and towns were restored; others were beyond repair. People endured — carried on.

Postwar, memorials were erected and traditions established to honor the fallen. But that November morning in 1918, heavy with loss, must in our own time rouse our memory and our conscience. How could such carnage have happened? Had the sacrifice of a generation and the risk of another global catastrophe been worth it? Those who fought are dead and cannot answer. To us is left ineffable sadness at the futility of war — and ghostly echoes of the clash of arms and the cries of men.

Anne Carr Bingham lives in Salem.


Update hourly