Friday, November 7, 2008

The Great War

The First World War, the "War to End All Wars," ended 90 years ago at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. In the United States, World War One is almost forgotten, the last veterans long dead and buried. My students have never heard of it. Mysteriously, they've all heard of WWII, but it never occurred to them that there was a WWI before. My grandfather was on the front in France as a medical officer from 1917 to 1918. Since American involvement in the war came late and was brief, it is hard for us to realize the magnitude of that conflict for Europe and the Middle East.
A friend of mine, who is a historian, always said that those who complain about Western Civilization coming to an end are wasting their time. They're too late. It's already over. It ended in August 1914. The First World War was humanity's first taste of mechanized warfare and industrialized death. The surprise and the shock of it is hard for us to imagine. No one was prepared, including the generals.

A military parade in Berlin, August 1914

A German recruitment rally, 1914. People on all sides were eager for the war. Every nation was convinced that it had been wronged, and young men poured into recruitment offices out of patriotism, and in search of adventure. The war was anticipated as though it was some kind of great football game. No one believed that it would last longer than a few weeks.

Trench Warfare, Cheshire Regiment of the British Army, Somme, 1916. Soldiers arrived on the front to find not glamorous hand to hand combat and cavalry charges, but the squalor and horror of the trenches.

Tank Warfare, A British tank coming over a German trench. The tank made its debut in the war.

Austrian Uhlans, 1915. The First World War was the last major conflict that saw extensive use of horses. Once fearsome cavalry charges meant nothing in the face of machine guns and...

War in the Air, British fighter planes.

Chemical Warfare, British soldiers wounded in a gas attack, Ypres.

British and German wounded, Bernafay Wood, July, 1916

Paschendaele Ridge, Belgium, 1917. There were miles of northern France and Belgium where the ground was dug over by explosives to a depth of 10 feet.

Disabled German war veterans marching on the War Ministry, Berlin, December, 1918. The war decimated an entire generation of young men. Millions died in a span of 4 years (a million died in the Battle of Verdun alone). Thousands more were left maimed. In the later years of the war, anger and disillusionment spread rapidly in the ranks on all sides. Pacifist and revolutionary literature circulated freely among British and German troops. In 1917, an entire division of the French army mutinied and threatened to march on Paris unless peace talks began. The entire Russian army walked off the front and began marching home toward Moscow and St. Petersburg, eventually forcing the Tsar to abdicate.

The German military cemetery at Ypres, Belgium

The Menin Gate at Ypres, a memorial to British war dead covered with the names of thousands of British soldiers who perished near Ypres, and whose bodies were never recovered.

Every evening at 8PM, buglers sound The Last Post at the Menin Gate at Ypres, a ritual performed since the end of the First World War, and interrupted only by the German occupation of Belgium in World War II.

The beginning of the war was ambiguous and it ended ambiguously. It was an unambiguous catastrophe. It radically redrew the map of Europe and the Middle East. The German Empire collapsed during the war. Ancient monarchies and empires perished in the 4 years of the war: the 500 year old Russian monarchy ended, the centuries old Hapsburg dynasty ended with the Austrian Empire in 1918; the 700 year old Ottoman Empire collapsed because of the war.

The First World War was a baptism in blood into the 20th century and the modern era.


BillyD said...

What level do you teach?

Counterlight said...


BillyD said...

My God - and your students had never heard of WWI? It's in middle school history texts, for crying out loud!

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

It was my Grandfather's generation who went out to the first war. The last ones are about 109 years now. In France I knew several who had fought in both wars, among them an ancient Marquis who had been an offier de liason to the English in both wars. I remember him being very much agreed with the Duke of Wellington as to the English soldiers: "the scum of the earth". Not least their language was bad... and for a Frenchman that was a sour point.

His Marchioness had gone on Sunday promenades in the Avenue du Bois, as Avenue Foch was those days. She talked of the grand cocottes doing the same. For the genteel girls they were sooo faschinating - their clothes, their maquillage...

A long time ago...

Counterlight said...

"My God - and your students had never heard of WWI? It's in middle school history texts, for crying out loud!"

One of the things that I've had to learn the hard way is to never take it for granted that my students know ANY history. This is true for both my city kids and suburban kids. It may be there in the textbook, but that doesn't guarantee that it's on a school curriculum, or that junior is paying attention.

And yes, it's very shocking, and deeply depressing.

The 2 weeks that I spend on Greek and Roman art is probably the only exposure to Classical culture that these kids will ever have. I have to explain the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to rooms full of Christians. When I teach modern art, I have to explain WWI because they've never heard of it.

Davis said...

My cousin fought in France during the Great War - he never quite recovered from the experience.

It was the end of history.

Brian R said...

My uncle died on the Somme. I have now visited his grave twice, the second. last year, to take my sister a few months after the death of our mother, his little sister. My mother kept a photo of me kneeling at his grave on her mantel piece. I have also been to the Menin Gate service 3 times, very moving. Tours of the Somme and Paschendale cemeteries have left me in tears, especially when I heard an American voice saying "so many Australian soldiers known only unto God". It was a terrible time that should never be forgotten.