Thursday, February 13, 2014

Debris: The Great War 100 years hence

IT WAS FIRST called The Great War, and it was indeed the greatest war the world had yet seen until that time.

It involved the British, French, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires, and the republican but colonialist United States of America. Through a series of alliances, these Great Powers created a balance of power that held the destiny of the world in their hands at the start of the 20th Century.

It was then called The World War. This war, however, was later depicted to some of the peoples of these empires as “The War to End All Wars” in propaganda aimed at stoking both patriotism and idealism. Four years of incredibly lavish blood-letting never before seen in 5,000 years of recorded history led to the deaths of over 21 million soldiers and civilians in a totally misguided and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring about Peace through War.

It was also described as the world’s first “Industrial War;” the world’s first “Technology War” and the world’s first “Propaganda War.”

This war of many inhuman firsts—World War I— marks the 100th Anniversary of its outbreak this year, 2014.

European empires before World War I.

No nation, least of all those who fought in this tragic conflict, will celebrate a war that mass-produced mass murder; became a universal symbol of military incompetence and callousness, and introduced into the world the first of those man-made killing agents widely known today as “Weapons of Mass Destruction” or WMDs.

The world’s first WMD was poison gas. This new weapon of war was first unleashed in 1915 on French soldiers on the Western Front in Belgium. Poison gas killed 90,000 soldiers and crippled 1.3 million others on both sides during this war. Most of the poison gas victims were French and British fighting men.

This explains the great aversion to poison gas shown today by France, Britain and the USA—and their willingness to use military force to prevent the renewed use of poison gas. Their distaste was made manifest during the poison gas attacks by the Syrian government in August 2013.

British Tommies, victims of a German poison gas attack.

Such were the many horrible firsts introduced into a peaceful world by The First World War. This Great War or The World War or The War to End All Wars was only widely referred to as World War I after its far more terrible child, World War II, engulfed Europe then the world from 1939 to 1945.

Instead of a 100th anniversary celebration, however, the world will remember the tens of millions of victims of a war that gave birth to the chaotic world we live in today—a world in which military power is at its greatest height.

We, all of us, are debris of The First World War.

The road to world war
The date of the many commemorations of 1914 will vary according to country, but will begin in present day Bosnia. The Great War began in Bosnia on June 28, 1914. On this fateful day in the city of Sarajevo in Bosnia (then a part of the Kingdom of Serbia), a young Bosnian Serb student named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary.

This assassination, which also saw the murder of the Archduke’s wife, ignited a diplomatic crisis when Austria-Hungary delivered to Serbia an ultimatum ordering compliance with a set of 10 harsh demands. Austria-Hungary had intentionally made the ultimatum unacceptable; its real intent was to provoke a war with Serbia.

Frantic to avoid war with an empire, Serbia met eight of the 10 demands. Austria-Hungary, nevertheless, declared war on Serbia on July 28 and bombarded Serbia this same day as a prelude to an invasion. These were the first shots of what would become The First World War only six day later.

This war, however, would have remained just another local war. It would have been confined to the Balkans, “the powder keg of Europe” and the most probable flash point for any European war. It would have, were it not for the two mutually distrustful alliances whose massive armies were poised for war at a moment’s notice.

The major protagonists: the British Tommy, French poilu, German landser and  Russian muzhik.

These two alliances split Europe: the Triple Entente consisted of the French empire, the British Empire and the Russian Empire while the Triple Alliance or the Central Powers comprised the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

The Russian Empire, which considered itself ruler of the Slav peoples including the Serbs, partially mobilized its massive armed forces on July 29 to deter Austria-Hungary from, further aggression. The German Empire mobilized against Russia on July 30 in fulfillment of its military obligations to Austria-Hungary.

Refusing to immediately mobilize in the west to counter the German mobilization, the French were finally forced to do so on August 2 when Germany invaded neutral Belgium and attacked French troops. Germany’s immediate strategic aim, which was detailed in the Schlieffen Plan, was to speedily defeat France before turning east to destroy Russia. Germany failed and the stage was set for four years of the most terrible warfare yet witnessed.

Germany declared war on Russia on August 1 and on France on August 2. The British Empire—the world’s largest—declared war on Germany on August 4. The British declaration of war immediately transformed a local conflict in the Balkans into an international conflagration thereafter called The First World War. Europe had blundered into war.

It is a war defined by horrible images seared into mankind’s shared consciousness: brave young men suicidally charging machine guns; the endless lines of trenches on the Western Front resembling open graves; the brutal winters in Russia freezing men to death by the thousands and the unimaginably horrific artillery barrages lasting up to a week on the Western Front that either blasted soldiers to bits or buried them alive in their trenches.

Landsern on the Western Front take a respite from battle.

A hundred years on and the hatreds that once divided Europe are today dimly remembered. In place of imperial alliances has appeared the New Europe in the form of the 28-nation European Union or the EU. There has been no Great War in Europe since 1945, an unbroken span of 68 years, and the longest period in modern European history without a war involving Europe’s major powers. The EU is achieving its aim of banishing war as an instrument of national policy.

It is in the spirit of this peaceful New Europe that commemorations of The First World War will together involve the countries that took part in this war. In April 2013, France and Germany—the bitterest of foes in the 19th and 20th centuries—agreed to finance events that will commemorate rather than celebrate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Both countries will do so until June 2014 in Sarajevo, capital of the present-day state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Bosnia-Herzegovina announced the creation of an endowment for First World War centenary remembrance plans called "Sarajevo-Heart of Europe.” The central commemoration of the 100th anniversary will be a concert to be played by the Vienna Philharmonic on June 28 in Sarajevo.

It is ironic and a welcome sign of the demise of past national animosities that Austrians, whose ancestors ignited the First World War, will hold a concert in Sarajevo, the place where the war began, for Bosnians whom they attacked at the start of the war. A series of concerts will also be held throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina before that ceremony.

Poilus assault the German trenches. The man in the foreground has just been shot.

A quiet commemoration
Besides this joint commemoration in Sarajevo, however, it seems Germany would rather not remember the past but instead wants to focus on the future of the EU that it helped create in 1993.

“For us, it is about remembrance and reconciliation, and trying to learn lessons,” an officer from Germany’s embassy in the UK was quoted as saying. He said German commemorations of the First World War will focus on how the EU has brought European nations closer together.

The French also seem to want a quiet remembrance of the First World War. What they’ve so far announced is that France will carry out a policy of national remembrance. But in many of France’s cities, towns and villages where “La Premiere Guerre Mondiale” or “La Grande Guerre” or "La Guerre du Droit" (The War for Justice) are routinely commemorated every year, this policy of national remembrance in 2014 will certainly add to the patriotic fervor.

Celebrating victory
The United Kingdom, on the other hand, will salute its heroes very loudly. It will hold a series of national remembrance events for its First World War Centenary. These events will consist of an extensive cultural program and educational scheme to commemorate what it likes to refer to as The Great War.

The last two British soldiers who served in the Great War died in July 2009 within one week of each other. The last British soldier from The Great War was Harry Patch. Before he died at 111 years-old, Patch spent his last years urging his friends and admirers never to forget the millions of men on both sides who gave their lives during The Great War.

Battlefield in northern France.

"War isn't worth one life," said Patch, who was wounded and traumatized for life by the inhuman horror and carnage he experienced at the Battle of Passchendaele fought from June to November 1917. Passchendaele, the bloodiest British battle in The Great War, ended in a British defeat.

The British suffered over 500,000 casualties in a battle where men drowned in mud caused by unrelenting rains or were cut down in droves by German machine guns. The battle has become synonymous with the stupidity and heartlessness of the British generals who went through with the battle despite warnings to the contrary. The British soldiers were truly “Lions led by donkeys.” For the Germans, however, their victory despite being heavily outnumbered helped prevent the ultimate collapse of their Western Front.

Condemning the flawed British plans that led to the tremendous slaughter of British infantry, David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, said this of the Battle of Passchendaele in 1938: “Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war . . . No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign . . . ."

Tommies attack amid poison gas.

Russia remembers
But there will not be a grand commemoration of The Great War in Russia despite Russia’s key role in the defeat of the Central Powers. For over three years, the pathetically armed and badly led Russian armies unselfishly sacrificed themselves for their Western Allies. Their offensives saved France and Britain from early defeat by Germany and kept over half the mighty German Army on the eastern front.

The efficient Germans inflicted colossal defeats on the ill-trained Russians, eventually forcing Russia to surrender in March 1918 and quit the war. But it was a costly victory for Germany; over half of all German casualties in The Great War were inflicted by the Russians.

It is this bitter defeat in 1918 that has made the “Second Patriotic War,” as the Russian’s call The Great War, a source of shame and forgetting. As a general rule, the Russians never commemorate the war. Two million Russian soldiers died for their country but to this day, no national monuments worthy of the memory of her heroes or the other victims of the Second Patriotic War have been built in Russia. The Second Patriotic War is truly Russia’s “Forgotten War.”

But Russia now belatedly remembers her dishonored heroes. The Organizing Committee for the 100th Anniversary of World War I is now in the process of erecting a monument honoring Russia’s forgotten heroes on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow. Russia also plans to take part in international events dedicated to commemorating the 100th anniversary of The Great War.

Muzhiks on the march.

The world forgets
It will be extremely difficult to awaken the world to an event, however shattering, that occurred in a dimly lit past. One barrier to any widespread remembrance of World War I is World War II. This far deadlier and more recent war is favorite fare on TV, the movies, YouTube and the Internet.

The powerful images of goose-stepping Nazis, massive Tiger tanks and Adolf Hitler haranguing adoring multitudes imprint the Second World War more easily on younger minds than does the First World War, which seems to be a “Grandfather’s War” fought in grainy black and white videos.

Remember, however, that the Second World War is also seen as a continuation of the First World War. German grievances over the harsh terms imposed by the victors that impoverished Germany, and the murderous effects of the worldwide economic depression of 1929 on the German people, gave rise to right wing groups promising to restore German pride and prosperity.

Among these fringe right wing cabals advocating Germany’s return to power was the “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei.” This motley crew of misfits in 1919 welcomed into its ranks as its 55th member an obscure but decorated World War I veteran named Adolf Hitler. It took 14 years for Hitler and his Nazis to seize control of the Germany and six more years to plunge the world into a far more ghastly world war.

But both the First and the Second World Wars took place in the 20th century, the most violent century in human history. Happily, that century is over. And it is a remote possibility that a Third World War will consume the world in the first half of the 21st Century.

Wars are now “local” but must be condemned for their wanton destruction of human life. Peace is always preferable to war. That is the eternal lesson of The First World War the world chooses to forget.

(Published in the January 2014 issue of  Enrich, magazine of Mercury Drug Corporation)