This week marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. On July 28, 1914, the assassination of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, a comparatively minor event, led to what some believe to be the most terrible and disastrous war of the twentieth century.
Terrible and disastrous in so many ways. For years wise men had speculated why such a European war would not come. Money trumped politics, some said; bankers and men who comprised the financial and industrial elite would not risk a general war. Since leading nations were now industrialized, a general war would be too wasteful. It was one thing to lay waste in agricultural societies, but quite another to destroy large factories, transportation systems and large cities in an industrial era.
The spread of scientific ideas together with advances in education and social reform, led others to believe that intelligence and negotiation would prevent large-scale wars. The growing destructiveness of new military technology would inoculate human beings against the social illness of war.
In addition, a small minority of idealists held that international socialism, which had gained converts amid the growth of industrial power, would prevent the outbreak of a great war, for workingmen in the nations of Europe would not take up arms against each other.
Yet in August 1914, all of these reasons were swept aside. When no one knew what they faced, millions of people were elated. Celebrations erupted in Berlin (Let’s go!”), Paris (“We’ll see you in Berlin in September”), and St. Petersburg (“Support the Czar!”) A romantic, patriotic war would be “over by Christmas.” However, each nation also harbored an abundance of skepticism, that is, until the armies engaged each other.
It was as if war came overnight. On one side were the “Central Powers” Germany and Austria-Hungary, and on the other, the Allied Powers Russia, France and Great Britain. Interlaced with each other by treaties and secret agreements, if one nation decided on war, others would be drawn in almost almost automatically.
The match that lit the fire was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a young Serbian nationalist.
The enormity of disaster
Over the course of months, and then years, the horror of the disaster emerged. If we reduce World War I to statistics, by the time of the armistice in November 1918, fatalities had reached 9,000,000. (Imagine a huge crowd of 100,000 filling Ohio State’s football stadium. Fill the stadium and then empty it, and do that 90 times, bringing in new people each time. When adding casualties to the fatalities, do the same thing 180 times and imagine the gathering mass of humanity.)
At the battle of the Somme, for example, Germany lost half a million men, France 200,000, and Great Britain 420,000 – 60,000 causalities in the first day, including 20,000 dead.
At Verdun, the single longest battle of the war, nearly a million soldiers were wounded, and 420,000 lay dead.
After such battles, there often was little change in battle lines, perhaps half a mile. To the sorrow of families and friends who never knew the agony of death on the battlefield, millions of the dead were never found.
The horror lay not only in numbers. It was a partly buried war, with tunnels and burrows that in places went down 50’ to 100’ feet, leading to kitchens and sleeping quarters. Trenches ran from the English Channel 350 miles to Switzerland – forward trenches, support trenches, and sometimes communication trenches. Soldiers lived in them, suffering from lice and trying to avoid rats that sought out the dead. Month after month. All for a thousand yards.
Men broke under those conditions, sought relief in sick bays, or solace in rare chapels where they existed. Men cried out for “release” as ministers and priests blessed them. In this war it was Christian nation against Christian nation, and people prayed to the same God.
Unable to pursue successfully a policy of neutrality while insisting on freedom of the seas, with German submarines unleashed against American ships, President Woodrow Wilson in an eloquent address in April 1917 asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. At the time, short-lived mutinies occurred in France and Russia; later in the year, food riots developed in German cities. On the eastern front, amid staggering losses and food shortages at home, soldiers and workers rose up against the Tsarist government, overthrew it and eventually left the war, as its soldiers walked home.
On November 11, 1918, after tanks had broken through the Hindenburg Line, and with American soldiers playing a strong supportive role in France (with more “doughboys” scheduled to arrive), an armistice was arranged.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes declares that there is a time for everything under heaven, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time for war and a time for peace. But today, centuries after the book’s unknown author(s) wrote of life’s ambiguities, millions have come to believe that the words “war” and “wisdom” can no longer be linked.
More than human carnage kindles that viewpoint; other immense consequences of the war have played a role.
The political and cultural shock of the war brought into being a new era of force from which there has been no exit. New weapons appeared: machine guns that fired 600 rounds per minute, tanks (“armored tractors”) that in the last months of war could break through enemy lines, planes that rained bombs on civilians, poison gas, heavy artillery, and submarines. Four empires – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish – disappeared.
Dictatorships emerged, foremost among them in Mussolini’s fascist Italy and in Germany, where Adolf Hitler mobilized revenge-minded citizens, bringing another war and the Holocaust. Russia collapsed as a civil society and succumbed to Bolshevism. Its system of communism was a product of the war, as by extension, was the Cold War that followed World War II. Extreme economic dislocations occasioned trade and tariff wars that underlay The Great Depression of the Thirties.
There is more. Spread in part by the movement of ships carrying soldiers and sailors who lived in close quarters, the Great Flu epidemic of 1918-19 circled the world, and in less than a year killed between 30 and 50 million people (there is no official count), including 675,000 the United States.
Whatever words may describe the foregoing, victory and human progress are not among them.
“Human nature” a roadblock to peace?
War is as old as civilization – indeed is an expression of it – because through the centuries war did benefit some societies. But there are certain melancholy understandings of history and human nature that the tragedies of the past century will not let us shake from memory. One is that suffering becomes unbearable as hundreds, thousands, and millions either die or are maimed for life, physically and psychologically.
Another is that even normally peaceful people can be roused to fight in anger by political duplicity, a felt need for revenge, and even clownish propaganda.
The seven deadly sins remain deep-seated in the human heart. Some find it possible to subdue them; others do not. But now that war is so lethal – born of historical experience if not of morality – we should better be able to see the humanness in our putative enemies and insist that our governments do likewise.
Humanity has made enormous progress since the ancient days of tribal warfare. Our work is to facilitate that movement through our era of nationalism and sophisticated, destructive technologies.
(Editor’s note: Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, Ohio, is recently retired from the history department of the University of Toledo. He is the author or editor of several books and the recipient of teaching awards at the university and state levels. A past president of the Ohio Academy of History and of the Swiss Community Historical Society, he is active in several organizations. One of his greatest joys is hiking, preferably in majestic environments such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and other national parks.)