One hundred years ago this month, the world changed. The conflagration was called The Great War. It retained that name for 21 years until the next round received a Roman numeral Two.
On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, supported by five conspirators, murdered the Austro-Hungarian archduke and his wife during a state visit to Sarajevo. The Austro-Hungarians pressed Serbia with demands that would never be met. Austria invaded Serbia; Russia mobilized in support of the Serbs; Germany naturally supported Austria; France’s treaty with Russia drew in the British. Overlapping alliances tumbled the world into global conflict spreading to Africa and Asia.
Six young men destroyed the world. Princip was barely 19; four others also were under 20.
To a large extent the Great War was an immense family feud. King George of England and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany were grandchildren of Queen Victoria, who had died in 1901. The Czarina, Empress Alexandra, was Victoria’s grand-daughter yet George V and Nicholas II might have been twins. As nations and empires mobilized, the Kaiser and the Czar exchanged eerily friendly telegrams: “Dear Nicky” and “Dear Willie.” All to no effect.
Perhaps almost impossible to grasp today was the enormous enthusiasm for war in every country. The French seethed under thirty years of humiliation after Prussia’s victory in 1871, seeking to reclaim lost territory. Recruiters did a booming business everywhere. Every nation expected quick victory—“the troops will be home by Christmas.” But by fall of 1914 the morass had settled into a stalemate, especially in the west with trenches running from the English Channel to the Swiss border.
Technologically, the Great War was a landmark event. It involved large-scale operations by modern warships, submarines, aircraft of all types, and debut of the tank. The advantage quickly passed to the defense. The combination of barbed wire, machine guns, and rapid-fire artillery kept the Allies and Germans facing each other across No Man’s Land for years. One result was the end of cavalry after millennia on global battlefields.
We can never know how many people died in the Great War but the figure appears to run around ten million military personnel. More specifically, the toll involves five to six million military deaths and three million civilian among the Allies with three to four million military and three and a half million civilians among the Central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey). Call it 8.2 million to 11 million military deaths and 7 million civilian to all causes. Fifteen to eighteen million total dead from combat and war related causes. Nothing remotely comparable had happened in Western history.
The foregoing does not count victims of the related Spanish Flu pandemic that circled the earth and claimed at least 50 million in 1918-1919, maybe twice as many.
America’s role in the GW remains simplistically seen at best in the public’s mind. Maybe the best treatment is Thomas Fleming’s Illusion of Victory (2004) which focused attention on Woodrow Wilson’s “neutrality” while supporting the genuine “merchants of death”—not arms makers but financiers with a vital interest in recouping their loans to Britain and France. Yet Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the basis that “He kept us out of the war.” We never learn: five decades later Lyndon Johnson was elected as the peace candidate.
The U.S. lost about 117,000 people, mostly in the last six months. That’s because we did not officially enter the war until April 1917, two years after one presumed reason, a U-boat sinking the British liner Lusitania with 128 American deaths. Widely overlooked was the fact that they had ignored the published risk of German submarines, and unknown was the ship’s illegal cargo of munitions for Britain.
Another stated reason for America’s declaration of war was the notorious Zimmermann telegram, an absurd suggestion by Berlin’s foreign minister that invited Mexico to invade the American southwest and recover Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona with German support. In early 1917 the Mexican government studied the prospects and rejected them as unworkable. Meanwhile, the Brits deciphered the message and leaked it to Washington.
The weight of American manpower did not come to bear until the summer of 1918, and then it was substantial. But America’s entry may have done more harm than good. Allegedly Winston Churchill said in retrospect that absent a U.S. declaration of war, there would have been a cease-fire in 1917. By then the French army was wracked with mutiny; Russia was toppling to the Bolsheviks; Britain was out of reserves; and Germany was feeling the effect of the naval blockade plus massive losses. The Austrians made a habit of drubbing the Italians to little gain, suffering the heaviest proportional losses of the war.
When the Western allies forced an armistice upon Germany in November 1918, the stage was set for Round Two. The Versailles Treaty sought to punish Germany for “starting the war,” ensuring that two generations of Germans lived under crushing debt until a former Bavarian corporal rose to power in Berlin.
Practically unknown today is the fact that the U.S. and British navies maintained a blockade of German ports for eight months after the armistice, leading to thousands of deaths that winter. The starvation eased after Germany’s new government agreed to more Allied demands in 1919.
Small wonder, then, that a seething resentment brewed up, yielding Adolf Hitler. At the same time, the horrors of the Great War produced a generation of pacifists in Europe who naively (or stupidly) felt that no war was worth fighting.
Might the Great War have been prevented? Probably yes, although it was so convoluted a situation that hardly anyone could have foreseen it. Germany might have tried harder to rein in Austria, and Britain might have declined to participate, which certainly would have affected France. But given the boiling ambition of Russia and France; Germany’s perceived need to support Austria; and the general enthusiasm for war throughout Europe, the entire cauldron was bound to boil over.
Among the absurd slogans of the Great War was that it Made The World Safe For Democracy. At its core, the war was a clash of empires, and most of them survived, many undemocratically. The British Empire remained intact as far off as India. France’s colonial outposts stood fast, and even Belgium retained its holdings in Africa. Perhaps pegging the irony meter was Japan, which sided with the Allies and gained former German holdings in the Pacific.
Concludes historian Eric Margolis, “Even today, British historians continue to distort history and blame Germany for a war that was everyone’s fault.”
Could there be another Great War in Europe? Probably not. Aside from the mellowing effect of a globalized economy, war is far too expensive today for sustained, large-scale combat. If you cannot afford to buy large numbers of extremely expensive ships or aircraft, and must rely upon a volunteer military, the options are limited.
But then nobody seriously expected a world war in August of 1914. Perhaps that’s a chilling lesson, as we humans continue to insist organizing ourselves into nation-states.
For a whimsical explanation of the entire mess, I recommend this treatment, unfortunately by an anonymously talented author.
“If World War I Was A Bar Fight.”