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 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.
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...
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 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.