The fighting on the Western Front ended over 101 years ago, why is the First World War so important?
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 238. Thank you Donation Ross. This week a big thank you goes out to everyone who has supported this show over the years, either on Patreon, through Paypal donations, or just by listening. On the release date of this episode the Treaty of Versailles was signed 100 years, 5 months, and 20 days ago. Even though it is over a century in the past, the war and the events that followed are still important to us today. In this episode we are going to review the human sacrifices made during the war, as well as the aftermath of the conflict around the world after 1918. We will then take a slightly longer view to discuss how much influence the war and its conclusion had on events in the following decades. Finally we will end by discussing the commemoration of the war, how it is remembered, and what is being done to keep the memory of the war alive.
The easiest, and most personal way to think about the legacy of the First World War is in the death and suffering that it caused, on an individual level. Over the course of the over four years of conflict between 8 and 11 million soldiers were killed. That is 11 million sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers. If we add in the civiliean deaths, you get to a number of around 20 million dead, 20 million men, women, and children. To borrow an example I used in an earlier episode, If we start divided that by the time scale, just taking the low end of that estimate we arrive at 288,000 per month, 9,615 every day, 400 every hour, almost 7 per minute. That is seven people dying every minute for over 4 years. This is simply staggering especially once you double that number due to the 20 million military wounded. And yet somehow even this, with 40 million people killed or wounded, it still does not properly communicate the amount of suffering that were packed into the years after 1914. That number does not include deaths from the influenza pandemic, with estimates as high as 100 million deaths although probably closer to 50 million, then the Russian Civil War, over 7 million, then all of the fighting around the world in the aftermath of the war, that probably adds another million. And in the 10 years after the start of the war in 1914 you have a period of suffering around the world that was unrivaled before, but unfortunately not unrivaled since.
But, as with any war, the effects of the fighting did not end with the end of the war. Even the millions of men that came home were changed by their experiences in the conflict. For some these changes would be small, but for others it would completely alter their lives. Today we would refer to this as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the almost inevitable consequence of the human mind pushed beyond the breaking point. These problems did not end when the war was over, for many individuals they were just beginning. Here is the account of one woman in Britain “My brother, who was also in the army, went out, and he got shell-shock. Of course they didn’t understand anything about it at all in those days. He was put on light duty at first, and for, I should think, two and a half years, we had the most terrible life with him. It don’t mean because he could help it - he couldn’t help it at all - and no doctor seemed to be able to do anything with him at all. About five times a day he’d say he was going to commit suicide. We knew he wouldn’t, but he’d got to be watched, all the time, and he would wake up in the night, screaming - and my mother would go and sit with him - saying ‘Oh, I can’t go back to it’…It was absolutely terrifying when he woke up, screaming and screaming and screaming’”
The war also did not just end on November 11th, 1918, fighting continued in many areas around the world, even if it was not directly captured under the umbrella term of the First World War. In Eastern Europe the Russian Civil War was already underway, and would continue for years into the future. In the Middle East the dismantling of the Ottoman empire by the Western Powers would throw the entire region into years of chaos and uncertainty. In southern Europe the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire would see fighting as its successor states sought to assert themselves on the world stage. In eastern Europe Poland and Russia would fight a war for Poland’s survival. In the Baltics Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia would be in a similar situation. In all of these cases, the events in these areas were not always directly caused by the war, but the war put such a tremendous strain on societies around Europe and Asia that tensions that had previously laid mostly dormant erupted. In Africa, the Western Powers would try desperately to put things back to the way they had been of European colonialism and a colonized Africa, a task that they would find to be increasingly difficult, and a goal that they would never truly achieve.
It is also seemingly impossible to talk about the outcomes of the war without discussing events that came later, and by that I of course mean the Second World War. I think the view that the decisions made after the First World War, and specifically the choices made at the Paris Peace Conference caused the Second World War is a view that is too simplistic and ignores the fact that there were 20 years between the conflicts. 20 years is a lengthy period of time. But that does not mean that some decisions made in Paris in early 1919 did not have effects during the interwar years. The punitive clauses of the Treaty of Vesailles would be used by reactionary groups within Germany in their rise to power. The refusal to honor treaty obligations with Italy would be used during the early days of fascism in that country. In neither country did they make the choice to start another war a generation later inevitable. To assume that the choices made in Paris in 1919 made another war inevitable disregards the actions taken during the interwar period, and ascribes a largely unjustifiable amount of blame on the leaders who crafted the Versailles Treaty. Were mistakes made? Absolutely, but the scope of those mistakes were not unlimited. The greater failures found in the Peace process were further afield than the actions taken in Western Europe. The at times arbitrary decisions taken in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and especially the Middle East would set some areas up for decades of instability. The British and French would carve up the Middle East, sometimes just by drawing lines on maps, and these divisions would be enforced by their imperialist policies for decades after the war, a recipe for strained societies that persists in some areas to this day. One of the outcomes of the war was a genuine support for some kind of international organization that would prevent war from occurring in the future, this took the form o fthe League of Nations. This is important when considering the First World War, because the First World War did not start just due to the actions of an individual, or even multiple individuals. It was instead due to the geopolitical systems that had been built up before the conflict, and how those systems interacted with the military plans and existing treaty commitments of each nation. This geopolitical system was what the League of Nations, as flawed as it was, would try to solve, although it would fail. Later international organizations would try to learn from this failure, and would for the most part succeed.
While we can discuss, dissect, and evaluate the decisions made by the leaders during and after the war it does not change the fact that the war happened. Obviously this podcast has been released in the years of the centenary commemorations all around the world. Each country who participated in the war has reacted differently to this centenary. For countries, like France and the United Kingdom, there have been concerted efforts to raise public awareness, to educate, commemorate, and memorialize the events of the war. In other nations, like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where the war plays a foundational part of their national history it has been treated much the same. In Russia it has been mostly ignored due to its relation with the Tsarist government and the revolution. In many other countries, the United States and Germany among many others, it is overshadowed by the Second World War, although for different reasons. As Margaret Macmillian mentions in some of her lectures, we are also at a point in history where the last generation of those who personally knew someone that lived during the First World War is passing on. This results in a shift with history, pushing it away from personal connections and memories and towards a more detached view on events. This is natural and expected as events recede into history but also makes efforts to preserve the history all the more important.
There are mountains of books about why the First World War started, but one of those reasons was that nobody truly understood how horrible war could be. The memories of the last Great War, caused by political turmoil in France and then Napoleon, had faded. In 1914 very few people truly feared war, feared the suffering and death that it would cause, suffering just amplified by the technology and tactics developed over the preceding century. That is one of the reasons that remembrance is so important, not a blind remembrance of events, of time tables and troop movements, but a questioning remembrance of decisions and motivations, of causes and consequences, of why and not just what. We should always remember the people who died because of the war, either at the front or at home, but we should never treat war as inevitable.
I would encourage everybody who is listening to honor the sacrifices, commemorate the events, mourn the suffering, and communicate the story to others in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it can prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again. As always, thank you for listening, I hope that over the last 237 episodes I have helped you to understand the war and its consquences. So once again thank you for joining me on this journey, it has truly been a long way to Tipperary.