It is hard for us to conceptualize just how distant 100 years ago really is. It is a lost world, cast in grainy shades of black and white. One hundred years ago today, the vast armies of Europe were mobilizing towards their respective destinies, marching towards a fate inked savagely with the blood of millions. It would usher in an era where the value of a human life was measured in square metres, and where shortsighted leaders discarded their humanity in favour of assembly-line slaughter.
The “War to End All Wars” was a nom de guerre for the conflict that unfortunately proved a sad epitaph, because as we know WWI was hardly an end to global conflict. More the curtain raiser for a century that saw more blood spilled that any other which had preceded it.
Europe in 1914 was a world that was still very much a creature of the 19th century. The imperial quest for global domination, the trappings of monarchy, the twisted alliances — all cloaked a time and place that still viewed a rapidly changing world through the eyes of empire, of clashing cavalry, and the glory of the bayonet charge.
All of that would change in August 1914, when it was discovered that a new century — one that had birthed mechanization, mass production, and technological innovation on an exponentially escalating scale — had murdered the faux romance of a previous era, a now-threatened world where chivalry would compete unsuccessfully with the rapid-fire machine gun, where barbed wire replaced the cutlass, and the biplane and tank would supercede the prim and proper world of the dashing horse soldier.
Mud, gas and death were the elements a soldier now swam in, not glory. It was a concept that would be hard to accept for many an aging officer reared on legends of the Napoleonic Wars, and would be responsible for even more tragedy during that terrible conflagration which ignited a continent a century ago.
Most officers during WWI were unable to let go of military theories and strategies that were hopelessly outdated in an age of mass armies. The fact that opposing sides would eventually resort to engagements of pure attrition to break the stalemate in the trenches — he who kills more men eventually wins — testifies to the brutal indifference to human life the conflict bred in the leaders who fought it, as well as being starkly illustrative of their incredible lack of insight into their own failings.
In other ways, WWI had a hand in shaping our modern world. Many of the conflicts that rage across the globe today can trace at least some of their roots back to the battlefields — and bargaining tables — of 100 years ago. The blame-laying, indemnity-laden Treaty of Versailles would give rise to the “stab in the back” myth in a prostrated Germany which had seen no foreign armies occupy her soil. Just how utterly defeated their nation actually was, was hidden from the common German citizen, and the vindictive Allies — who bore no small responsibility for the escalation of the initial conflict — chose to blame Germany solely for the war and exacted a crushing penalty. Hence the seeds of one war were sown, to swiftly grow another.
Today some might reflect back on WWI as a quaint conflict that was just a footnoted preamble to the seemingly more famous WWII, a war which seems to resonate more clearly in the minds and memories of many, and has more steadily infected the world of popular culture. But it is often forgotten that the conflict was one of the watershed moments of the 20th century.
Had it gone differently — as it almost did in the dying months of 1918, with Germany hurling her eastern armies into the western fray in a last-ditch effort to turn the tide — the world of today would be an incredibly different place. Just how much of a close-run thing the conflict actually was is largely forgotten in the 21st century.
There is something incredibly grim, and incredibly futile, about the Great War. Despite being one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, it is the terrible accounts of individual battles with now infamous names like the Somme, Ypres, or Verdun that somehow whisper to us down through the decades, and rightly haunt us.
We have had almost 70 years of relative peace since the last major world war scarred the surface of our planet, and it is a favourite aphorism to say “never again”. But it is worth remembering that of those who survived WWI, civilians and combatants alike — almost no one foresaw that only two decades later the world would tear itself apart again.