The conflict that ended one hundred years ago — on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” – was at first called, “The Great War.”
Winston Churchill had, as usual, the right and necessary words:
The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought.… Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.
There were so many casualties that the mind could not really apprehend them. They became abstractions, like the distance, measured in light years, to the nearest galaxy. Brought down to the particular, to specific battles, or in the case of the Somme, to a single day, the numbers gain what would today be called “granularity.” On July 1st, 1916, the British lost almost 20,000 killed and another 80,000 wounded. As a people, they never got over it.
In the months before the “big push” on the Somme, the French had been engaged at Verdun. The general in command of the Germans who were attacking them had made his objective clear. It was to “bleed the French army white.” He almost succeeded.
Some 300,000 men on both sides were killed. The fighting went on for months, across a relatively small area, and in the end, there were more body parts, than bodies, to bury. The bones of an estimated 130,000 men were collected and piled into a melancholy structure known as the Douaumont ossuary.
The war ended the lives of soldiers, civilians, and even the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian empires.Though it took a little longer, the colonial empires of Great Britain and France were also finished by the Great War. And, as Hemingway wrote, the Great War made a mockery of “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow [which became] obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
The U.S. declared war and began sending troops to fight the Germans, in 1917. They would be fighting a war, said President Woodrow Wilson, “to end all wars.” A couple of decades after that, the Great War, would be renamed World War One. The second one would be even worse.
When the armistice went into effect, one hundred years ago, the Germans were everywhere on foreign soil. If they were beaten, plenty of them didn’t know it or wouldn’t admit it. They had, some believed, been betrayed. Stabbed in the back. They wanted vengeance in the form of a rematch and they got it.
According to one line of thought, there was a second world war because the Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the first one, was excessively harsh and punitive. The war, in this version, had been somehow inevitable. Ignited by an absurd event – the assassination of the Archduke of Austria – and sustained by a dynamic that was beyond human control. In this version, there was no war guilt and to assign one to the Germans made the next war – and Hitler, who had fought in the first – inevitable.
Germany was the invader in 1914. Rolling through Belgium and across big parts of France and Russia, German troops burned cities, executed hostages and sent civilians into forced labor. They never made a secret of their war aims, which went way beyond defense of their own territory. According to Matthias Erzberger, the German Chancellor’s right hand man, his country would, in victory, rule over continental Europe for “all time.” Poland and the Baltic states would be vassals of Germany. France would be neutered and its coasts and iron producing regions under German control. The belligerents that had fought against Germany would be compelled to pay the cost of the war and, oh yes, that country’s entire national debt.
And so on.
If the Germans had dictated terms in the railroad coach at Compiègne or the final armistice at Versailles, it is fair to say they would have been more harsh than those laid down by Marshall Foch or by Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George.
So, twenty years later, the Germans were at it again.
This time, when it was over, there was no question in their minds that they had been defeated. While the sadness of 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is undeniable, the tragedy is that there was so much business left unfinished. So much sacrifice wasted.
Churchill, again, saw it right:
[I]n the sphere of force, human records contain no manifestation like the eruption of the German volcano. For four years Germany fought and defied the five continents of the world by land and sea and air. The German Armies upheld her tottering confederates, intervened in every theatre with success, stood everywhere on conquered territory, and inflicted on their enemies more than twice the bloodshed they suffered themselves. To break their strength and science and curb their fury, it was necessary to bring all the greatest nations of mankind into the field against them. Overwhelming populations, unlimited resources, measureless sacrifice, the Sea Blockade, could not prevail for fifty months. Small states were trampled down in the struggle; a mighty Empire was battered into unrecognizable fragments; and nearly twenty million men perished or shed their blood before the sword was wrested from that terrible hand. Surely, Germans, for history it is enough!
But plainly, it was not.
And this might be the thing to keep in mind on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.