04 August 2014

The War to End All Wars

This year marks the centennial of the start of World War I, which began on July 28, 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia after the assassination the month before of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Four long years later, on November 11, 1918, an Armistice was signed and the war was over at a cost of 21 million military and civilian wounded and 16 million dead.

"The war to end all wars" saw the maps of Europe and the Middle East reconfigured; the collapse of four empires—Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, German, and Russian; and an entire generation of young men in countries like France and Great Britain practically wiped out. Meanwhile America, who had entered the war late in 1917, became a world powerhouse while Europe struggled to recover; communism and fascism both made advances and the seeds of World War II were planted with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  

This was a war like none before. Soldiers bunkered down in trenches (which at one point ran nearly 400 miles), allowing neither side to gain much traction resulting in a stalemate that prolonged the war. Meanwhile, they contended with new weapons of war including machine guns, poison gas, and tanks as well as the introduction of aerial warfare.

Yet out of the ashes of the war emerged what is arguably the most important group of writers and artists of the 20th century, the Lost Generation, whose works reflected their experiences and the effects of the war. With a jolt, World War I forced the world to leave the Victorian age behind and jump into the Modern Age. As Paul Fussell points out in his book, The Great War and Modern Memory, the romanticized language used at the beginning of the war by the likes of Rupert Brooke who described the blood of young men as “the red/Sweet wine of youth” would become "not the least of the ultimate causalities of war." 

And so with the arrival of the centennial, many ceremonies will be held beginning this week. Today, European leaders and royalty gathered in Liege, Belgium to mark the day that Germany invaded Belgium and Britain in turn declared war on Germany.  And in Britain, lights were turned out for an hour and a single candle lit, a nod to what their then foreign minister, Edward Grey, said at the time, "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Remembering World War I is important—there are connections that can be drawn to events happening in the world today and lessons to be learned. Above all, World War I reminds us of the horror that is war and that battle is anything but glorious.

In the words of the brilliant poet Wilfred Owen who was killed in action on November 4, 1918, just one week before the end of the war:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
That old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

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