The war that was meant to end all wars, but did not

The Great War began on 28 July 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, but Britain joined the war on 4 August, 100 years ago today, when German troops invaded neutral Belgium.   The war drew in all the world’s great economic powers, and by the end of it 4 major imperial powers -the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires – had ceased to exist.   It was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, fought with technological savagery including chlorine and mustard gas, and amid the horrific conditions in the trenches.   More than 9 million troops were killed, and some 10 million civilians.   Some 21 million soldiers were wounded.   In Britain 41,000 men had one or more limbs amputated.   In France so many had mangled faces that they formed a National Union of Disfigured Men.   The toll was particularly heavy among the young.   Of every 20 British men between 18 and 32 in 1914, 3 were killed and 6 wounded.

Tjhe real cause of the war was the rise of German militarism and the determination of Germany under its unhinged king, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to challenge British hegemony.   Both sides expected a quick victory, to be back home by Xmas.   But the war escalated, and by 1916 had ground down to the awful tactical stalemate of trench warfare.   The battle of the Somme continued for 5 months, but on the first day alone, 1st July 1916, in a massive offensive against the German lines the British Army endured the bloodiest day in its history, suffering 57,000 casualties including 19,000 dead on that single day alone.   The last large-scale British offensive, at Passchendaele, cost a further 300,000 casualties.

What finally brought the war to an end were several factors.   One was the British naval blockade of Germany.   Another was the armed convoy system which became extremely effective in reducing the German U-boat threat.   A third decisive issue was the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania which finally brought the US into the war.   This then induced the German High Command, knowing they could not win a protracted war against the combined allied forces, to plan for a final desperate offensive on the Western front.   This repeated the disastrous tactics which the allies had made earlier, and equally proved enormously costly, leading inexorably to the final German surrender.

This was an utterly terrible war with colossal bravery, endurance and sacrifice.   But it led to the punitive reparations imposed on Germany at the Treaty Of Versailles, and thus helped to sow the seeds for the rise of Nazism amid the global Great Depression in the early 1930s.   Perhaps the spirit of bewildered despair at the horror of it all was best captured on a tombstone of one of the fallen at Gallipoli: ‘what harm did he do Thee, O Lord?’


3 thoughts on “The war that was meant to end all wars, but did not

  1. An interesting and accurate synopsis, that completely overlooks the profound social changes that were engendered as result of a generation of women, “without men,” who were forced of necessity to suddenly cope with having to go out and work, take responsibility for their families, money, and their dependant’s, and with huge number of physically and mentally disabled men and so on.

    These were the experiences that, it can be argued, laid the firm foundations for and provided the rational for the welfare state, that has served this country so well since the end of second world war, lessons and experiences that we now forget and dis regard to our detriment.

    In fact Cameron who is at heart, essentially just a crank, seems to want to hark back to the grinding poverty, frequent unemployment, (even before the great depression,) inequality and institutional incompetence, (nationalization of key industries wasn’t an act of spite, it was an operational necessity,) of the pre world war one era.

    Everyone still remember the Somme and Passchendaele , (the Dardanelles, etc.) but few people really remember a generation of exceptional and quietly remarkable women who prevailed against massive deprivations and hardships at home or honour them sufficiently.

    Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, captures and bitterly evokes the sheer horror of a gas attack in trenches, but there is nothing comparable that describe the unremitting horror of life living living with the massively physically and mentally traumatized, “survivors,” (if that’s even the right word,) many of them little more than children by today’s standards for whom the war didn’t end on 11 November 1918, it never ended.

    But out of this, at least for a while, grew a far better, fairer and more compassionate society.

    As country and as society we seem to be increasingly afflicted with a very convenient amnesia about, why, the generations of brave and often not so brave men and women, who endured 2 world wars came to believed so passionately that life and society could and should be improved not just for the few, but for everyone.

    This is perhaps the most important lesson of 2 world wars and the one that we forget at our peril.

  2. We would do well to remember it every day, not just once a year or once every hundred years: war is the cutting edge of ‘capitalism’.

  3. The great war to end all wars, it did not though not long after we were off again.

    New labour saw war as a way to be named in the history books, and now to day the world is teetering on the verge of a great melt down, and wars. Look around we have wars in nations which will and can spread and I’m sure it will not be long before somebody kills somebody blows up somebody and off we all go again.

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