Today (11 November) is Remembrance Day in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. It marks the end of WWI, and is marked by silence at the 11th hour. I know it is also Veterans Day in the US, but I do not remember the same significance there. I think more emphasis is placed on Memorial Day. Every town in Australia has a memorial, now containing WWII and Vietnam soldiers, but constructed for WWI boys. New Zealand lost 1/10th of its population, for a war it had no reason (other than the mother country) to be in. Something like ¼ of the men in France between the ages of 18 and 35 were either killed or maimed.
It’s worth noticing that it is in my lifetime that the last of the WWI veterans have died (at 95 years since the war ended it’s safe to say there are no surviving individuals who fought in the war). I can recall reading a Louisa May Alcott story (so mid to late 19th century) about a town planning a parade (4th July? Memorial Day?) and desperately trying to find a living veteran of the Revolution. All of the ones who had participated previously had died. In the end they end up with a man who was a veteran, but one of the German soldiers who fought for the British. As the years went by, the events in Australia and the UK increasingly only had one or two veterans.
I find WWI profoundly sad and frustrating, in a way that I don’t feel about WWII. WWII had much greater atrocities, but ultimately it was not so much about a few people’s stupidity and stubbornness the way that WWI was.
As a child several of my favourite authors had books set in and around the period, written contemporaneously with the war, or if written after, reflecting the period. Kate Seredy’s “The Good Master” is set just pre war in Hungary, and is followed by the “Singing Tree” set during the war (and showing the war from a Hungarian perspective). The last book in the Betsy-Tacy series is “Betsy’s Wedding” which runs from 1914 to 1917 and shows the American view of the war. The book before, “Betsy and the Great World” has Betsy in London for the beginning of the war. LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series concludes with “Rilla of Ingleside” set in those four years. She also has several other books set in the 1920s which reflect the consequences on Canadian society. One thing that I learned from those books was the support for the war, the belief that it was for a greater good.
Later when I studied the war in greater depth as part of IB history (in London, so close to sources) I realised how little it actually did. It was both a totally pointless war, and an inevitable one. The people in positions of power had mostly not been involved in war, so idealised how it worked- and made assumptions that would prove laughable. The principles of fair play and integrity were thought to apply to warfare (nice idea, but so wrong) and growing economies in Europe were butting heads. War of some sort was inevitable (there were several minor conflicts that were resolved in the years leading into the war), but not necessarily at that moment. The problem was a series of people who were too conscious of their honour and too loose with the lives of the people they governed. So they went to war.
It was compounded by arrogant and detached high up officers (like the one who refused to believe the casualty numbers at the Somme, so kept sending more men, never visiting himself). By a systematic dehumanisation of the enemy (the story of the Christmas football game still makes me cry, and it was banned after the first year because it made soldiers on both sides recognise the humanity of the other side), the war was carried out under some very dodgy pretences “a war to end all wars”.
It laid the seeds of many of the conflicts of the later 20th century (WWII and the Middle East mess can both be traced back to decisions made at the end of the war). It did not do much, save from shifting a few bits of land from one country to the next.
It was a pointless war; fought because of the pride of an arrogant man who liked to play at soldier, but who never fought himself (sound depressingly familiar- shades of G W Bush?) It was also in many ways a war that fought because of “honour” and the “principles of a just war” but it was dreadful. And so I get upset every year, in November for all those who died for nothing.
They fought for a cause they believed was just. They deserve to be remembered. But I think the corollary to the whole “Lest we forget” and the remembering their sacrifice needs to be that a decision to send others into battle is not taken lightly, and should always be questioned.
This post kind of got away from me. I really struggle with WWI, it shaped our world, but it was not a good thing. Yet without it, votes for women and a less classist society (in the UK) would not have emerged as quickly. The other point I wanted to make was about the importance of popular culture and artefacts of the time in understanding history. It’s very easy to read the dispatches from the front and historical analysis and form one opinion, but those children’s books show how the war was perceived and discussed at the time and shortly after.
The history books show events as inevitable. Consideration of primary documents and contemporary entertainment shows otherwise. What would have happened if people in England had not cheered going to war? If the propaganda featuring Belgian babies being massacred had not happened (propaganda that had negative consequences for WWII as well)? If just one General had pointed out that war is not like the playing fields of Eton.
I have another post brewing on the importance of expressing conscience in the face of official decisions, so maybe the two are melting together.