The Legacy of World War 1, 100 years later
On this day a century ago, World War I began, the thunder of guns sounding the death knell of the preceding era, and baptizing the modern era in a river of blood. Millions of men on both sides would march for king and country, and contrary to bold claims that they’d be “back by Christmas”, instead, the nations of Europe would be locked in a gruesome struggle for supremacy that would not end for four long years. When at last the guns fell silent, millions of soldiers would lie dead, those who survived returned home scarred and disillusioned by the experience, and history and society was forever changed in the aftermath.
It began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo a month prior, and would be answered a month later, on this day and very hour, with Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, resulting in the complex struggle for supremacy between the Entente and the Central Powers. The death of that Austrian Archduke would result in the death of 10-37 million others by the time World War I ended. Many of the empires who’d fought the war would meet their own end, including Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans, and the British and French empires would not long survive it, and all were left with their militaries gutted, their economies ruined, and massive discontent at home.
Tales and images of the war are well-known the world over, and are almost too many to list. The back-and-forth meat grinder of the Western Front, where the relentless trench warfare saw waves of soldiers mowed down by ever advancing weapons of war, from chemical gas attacks to the first appearances of tanks. The airplane was barely a decade old, yet the skies were filled with daring dogfights between opposing flying aces like the Red Baron or Eddie Rickenbacker. The struggles of ANZAC troopers at the cliffs of Gallipoli, the adventures of TE Lawrence during the Arab Revolt, the Christmas Truce – World War I had no shortage of tales of triumph and tragedy alike.
Such stories of the war, and even World War I itself, already seem to have passed from popular consciousness. The last of the sixty-five million veterans of the war, a British RAF Stewardess named Florence Green, died two years ago, and there are few alive today who can remember the war as an event they witnessed rather than a history lesson, and even the World War I Centennial seems to be drawing less press than even the American Civil War anniversaries. While inevitable in some respects, the reason that’s such a shame is because World War I is, more than any other event, what is directly responsible for shaping the past century.
The horrendous casualty rates and horror stories from the front finally put to rest the idea that war is some glorious adventure, as opposed to a grim and gruesome struggle for survival and supremacy. The wave of disillusionment felt by the generation who’d fought and witnessed it saw popular culture transition from Victorian romanticism to modern realism, defined by works about the war and its aftermath from A Farewell to Arms to All Quiet on the Western Front. Monarchies and empires, some of whom were centuries old, were gone at the stroke of a pen, and largely replaced world-wide by forms of republicanism, communism or fascism. With scores of men off to war, women were granted greater rights in much of the west, and the returning veterans would form the first veterans groups, and would result in changes from the ban of chemical weapons to the creation of what is now Veteran’s Day. To this day, the landscape of Europe still bears the scars of the war, from the cratered and trenches littering Northern France to unexploded ordinance still claiming victims to this day.
Most infamously, the seeds for future conflicts had been planted even as they called this “the war to end all wars” – not only with “wronged” parties like Germany, Italy and Japan forming the Axis powers of World War 2, but in other ways as well. Many of the issues in the Middle East today stem from the largely arbitrary borders created when the region was carved up between Britain and France at the negotiating table. Russia’s entry into the war, and the inability for the mostly gutted Entente powers to intervene in the Russian Civil War led to the rise of the Soviet Union, and the following conflicts that it and Communism would spark along with it. Even the rise of the United States as the global hyperpower it is today took its first steps with General “Black Jack” Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force. It was only when World War 1 burned down the global order that had stood since the end of the Napoleonic Wars that the modern world as we know it rose to take its place.
All is quiet on the Western Front today, but a century ago, Europe plunged headfirst into a conflict that would come to define the century. The clash of egos and clash of arms that was World War I saw witness to tragedy and senseless slaughter beyond measure, but that great and terrible conflict gave rise to the world we live in today. Remember World War I though not only for that, but also to never forget the countless millions of soldiers on both sides who died for the ambitions of empires, because the world wrought by their deaths should never forget them.