November 11, 2018 was the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, aka World War 1. You and I know it better as Veteran’s Day.
Veteran’s Day exists on November 11 because of Armistice Day in 1918. The “war to end all wars,” as it was then called, didn’t accomplish the task of ending wars.
In fact, many who have studied WW1 conclude that the terms of Germany’s surrender planted the seeds for the next, and even larger, conflict two decades later.
Be that as it may, it is proper and right to remember the First World War in all its history and the sacrifices it entailed.
How Did the Great War Happen?
The incident which sparked the conflict was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in July of 1914. Ferdinand was the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire and he was shot to death by a Serbian nationalist.
This swiftly developed politically until Austria-Hungary sent untenable demands to Serbia as a response to the killing of the Archduke. Austria-Hungary was supported by German Kaiser Wilhelm’s forces, while Serbia was backed by Russia.
With assurance from Wilhelm that they would support Austria-Hungary with their military might, they declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.
Within a week, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany, and World War I had begun.
The “allies” formed the group headed by Russia at the time. The “central powers,” of Germany and Austria-Hungary were soon joined by the Ottoman Empire and these formed the opposing nations for the bulk of the war.
Fighting In The Trenches
A defeat of German forces at the First Battle of the Marne in Western Europe began the bloody campaign of ‘trench warfare’ which decimated forces on both sides. The Germans had hoped for a quick victory in that battle which took place only 30 miles from Paris.
However, French and British forces pushed the German Army back until the lines stabilized north of the Aisne River in France.
The defeat meant the end of German plans for a quick victory in France. Both sides dug into trenches, and the Western Front was the setting for a hellish war of attrition that would last more than three years.
Fighting in the trenches during WW1 was a hellish exercise. Combatants on both sides suffered weeks of exposure to all the elements, and a new disease called ‘trench foot’ inflicted thousands.
Trench foot, or immersion foot syndrome, is a serious condition that results from your feet being wet for too long. The condition first became known during World War I, when soldiers got trench foot from fighting in cold, wet conditions in trenches without the extra socks or boots to help keep their feet dry. Trench foot killed an estimated 2,000 American and 75,000 British soldiers during WWI.
The trench-warfare casualties went beyond disease alone. The long battles left mountains of dead soldiers from both sides.
Particularly long and costly battles in this campaign were fought at Verdun (February-December 1916) and the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916). German and French troops suffered close to a million casualties in the Battle of Verdun alone.
When I first read about the length of the Battle of Verdun I was stunned that it lasted almost a full year! It is difficult to even imagine the level of carnage and suffering produced by just this one battle of the unprecedented Great War.
The Dawn of Modern Warfare
Much of what we now take for granted as part of war made the first appearances in WW1. For example, the fearsome flamethrower made its debut during the war.
Tanks were first used during the battles of the Great War. Here was an armored juggernaut that could move rapidly and rain explosive devastation upon the enemy.
The first combat using airplanes was seen on the European battlefields of WW1. Bombs were dropped by hand on targets, while bullets were fired by rifles from the cockpits of biplanes and triplanes.
With the advent of air power also came the first appearance of aircraft carriers at sea. These floating platforms eventually replaced the battleship and remain vital even today.
Chemical warfare was introduced and gas masks were first used to counter it during the fighting. Terrible concoctions such as mustard gas inflected horrible, lingering death throughout the war.
America Breaks the Stalemate
Americans were uninterested in participating in WW1 under Woodrow Wilson’s isolationst policies. The official American entry did not occur until April 2, 1918 after multiple sinkings of American ships by Germany.
Though the war had been raging for almost four years, the conflict was basically a stalemate until the United States joined the fray. Russia had already withdrawn because of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and signed a peace agreement with Germany.
American military forces filled the void left by Russia, and the allies began making swift gains and pushing the enemy back in all areas. By the fall of 2018, most of Germany’s allies in the “central forces” were ready to give up.
The Turks from the crumbling Ottoman Empire signed a peace treaty with the Allies in October, followed on November 4 by the remains of Austria-Hungary. Finally the Germans threw in the towel and the hostilities ended with the signing of the Armistice on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
The Treaty of Versailles
The official end of WW1 was with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. Germany was allowed almost no voice in the negotiation of the treaty, and was severely punished for its part in the war.
The boundaries of Germany were redrawn and they were assigned to pay war reparations to the Allies. They were also effectively disarmed by being restricted to a small army and only able to possess certain types of weapons.
Another result of the Treaty was the creation of a new League of Nations, which Germany was prohibited from joining until 1926. These and other crippling financial penalties were placed on Germany
The German government signed the treaty under protest. Right-wing German parties attacked it as a betrayal, and terrorists assassinated several politicians whom they considered responsible.
Moreover, the Treaty itself was not approved buy the U.S. Senate as they believed its restrictions were overly harsh. Indeed, Versailles created a growing resentment within Germany which allowed the initial rise of Hitler to the Chancellory in 1933, and WWII six years later.
Why It Matters to Remember
There were more than 16 million casualties during WWI. Destruction of such magnitude demands that we understand what went wrong and how to avoid this abomination.
The Great War has many important lessons for us 100 years later. Lessons we must continue to learn in each generation if we are not to repeat the horrors of that age.
Lessons about the inherent error and immorality of empires. Empires become infected with expansion by force, and wars are then inevitable.
Lessons about how to treat a defeated foe. The rise of National Socialism in Germany might likely have not come about if the victors would not have sought revenge.
I pray that we have learned enough in the past century to remain free and peacefully deal with those who oppose liberty. However, the final lesson among many of WWI was that we must always be prepared for those who will bring war to us, because it really wasn’t “the war to end all wars.”
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:12-13 [ESV]
Sources: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001
Top Image courtesy of Rudiger Stehn’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 1 courtesy of Rudiger Stehn’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 2 courtesy of Charles W. Bailey’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 3 courtesy of Bernard Spragg. NZ’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 4 courtesy of Reeve 10795’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image 5 courtesy of Chris Goldberg’s Flickr page – Creative Commons License
All other sources linked or cited in the text
First published in TIL Journal