Veterans Day will soon be upon us.
When I was a kid it was still called Armistice Day. It was changed in 1954 to Veterans Day. The original holiday memorialized the signing of the armistice which ended World War I. The Great War. The war to end all wars.
The Great War was ignited by a young Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip. His assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife, the Duchess Sofia, on the streets of Sarajevo put into motion the events that led to the outbreak of war. Of course everyone was ready for a war. All the places still ring in our ears – Bosnia, Serbia, Sarejevo, war. Gavrilo simply lit the match.
Why was it originally called the Great War? It killed a great deal more people than any prior war.
Last July 1, was the 99h anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
The opening day of the battle saw the British Army go “over the top” into heavy German machine gun fire and suffer the worst one-day combat losses in its history, with nearly 60,000 casualties. Of course the Generals didn’t stop the assault. By the end of the battle in November, both sides had suffered dead and wounded totaling 1,500,000 men
The allies had advanced less than 6 miles.
The Verdun Ossuary where the bones of 120,000 unidentified French and German
soldiers lie together.
The charnel house at Verdun took the lives of over 700,000 missing or dead French and Germans, their bones now lying together in the ossuary at the Verdun memorial.
Fighting continued right up to 11 o’clock on November 11 even though it was well known earlier that the armistice would commence at that hour, it having been signed at 4 AM that morning. Nonetheless, allied soldiers were ordered into battle on that last morning resulting in 10,944 casualties of which 2,738 men died on the last day of the war Blackjack Pershing eventually faced a Congressional hearing because of the outrage of many Americans at this pointless loss of life. The General was unrepentant. Generals usually are.
By the time the war was over there were more than 9,000,000 military corpses – and millions of more civilians. The flower of an entire generation was wiped out.
The Great War to end all wars brought down monarchy in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Czarist Russia and dismembered the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires.
Lenin and eventually Stalin came to power in the new Soviet Union.
Kaiser Wilhelm went to Switzerland firm in his belief that Germany had only signed an armistice and hadn’t lost the war. Corporal Adolph Hitler returned to a humbled Germany and eventually entered politics, firm in his belief that Germany hadn’t lost the war but had been stabbed in the back.
Italy, after joining the Allies and suffering 700,000 casualties got nothing at the Paris peace conference and Prime Minister Orlando went home. Mussolini promised Italians he would lead them to their rightful place in the Mediterranean.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire splintered into its two name-sakes, Czechoslovakia as well as the nations of the Balkans. Serbia and Bosnia still argue over the Field of Blackbirds. In Czechoslovakia’s northwest corner ethnic Germans had lived for centuries in an area called the Sudetenland – Hitler would reunite them with German speaking peoples.
Poland was recreated at Versailles (the 13th of Wilson’s 14 Points) however the “Polish Corridor” separating East Prussia from the Reich and the Free City of Danzig would be the pretext for war in 1939.
Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire creating the new states of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestine Mandate all under French or British control. Britain immediately put a Sunni Hashemite King on the throne of Iraq and didn’t think twice about its Shia majority. France wished only to protect the Christian Maronites in Lebanon from a Muslim majority in a Greater Syria. The Palestine Mandate eventually wound up as Jordan, Israel and the currently occupied West Bank. We can see the outline of the modern Middle-East in the actions of British and French colonialists 90 plus years ago. The promise by T. E. Lawrence of an independent Arab state was forgotten.
The destruction of Greek Smyrna by the Turks – 1922
Greece and Turkey fought a war over Anatolia after the Great War. Greeks were rousted from Smyrna and Turks from Salonika – places where each had lived for centuries. We now call it ethnic cleansing. Ataturk led his people to victory and created modern Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman state. Greeks and Turks still don’t get along. The biggest losers however were the Kurds who saw their hopes for a state of their own dashed with the Turkish victory.
Japan, having fought on the side of the victorious allies, wanted Germany’s concessions in China as its compensation. Japan also put forward a “racial equality” clause to the League of Nations sub-committee. It was approved by the sub-committee receiving 11 affirmative votes from 17 members but with opposition from Britain and its empire which argued that it undermined their “White Australia” policy. Ignoring the vote, Woodrow Wilson sided with the British and vetoed the proposal in order to gain votes for the League.
Japan, feeling snubbed by its white Western allies walked out of the conference. Within 20 years it would be a full axis partner of Germany and Italy as its military promised to lead Japan to its rightful place in the Pacific. The racial equality clause introduced by Japan in 1919 became a founding principle of the United Nations Charter.
The kitchen helper Ho Chi Minh who would lead Vietnam to independence – Paris 1919
A kitchen helper from French Indo-China working at the Ritz Hotel tried to see President Woodrow Wilson in Paris in 1919 to ask support for his country’s independence from French colonialism under the principle of national self-determination. No one would see the kitchen helper. Eventually the Soviet Comintern would see him. His name was Ho Chi Minh. and, after fighting the French, the Japanese, the French again and then the United States, he would lead his country to independence. Who knows what would have happened if Woodrow Wilson had spent a few moments with the kitchen helper.
One could argue that when he killed the Archduke, Gavrilo Princip indirectly contributed to the deaths of a hundred million people.
With the distance of time all of this turns into a few pages in a high school history book if it is mentioned at all. No one remembers Gavrilo and no one remembers the Archduke. Few will think of the millions of soldiers of all sides who died in the Great War.
Soldiers and civilians still die; we are living in the Imperium in the age of perpetual war. We have been at war or cold war every one of my 72 years. We have always had an “enemy”, there has always been a “threat”. Thousands died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For what? Are the reasons good enough? Will anyone think so 100 years from now?
Next we prepare for Syria and ISIS. Death on the Somme or Verdun or in Kandahar or Baghdad is just as dead.
I guess it doesn’t matter to most of us so long as our kid doesn’t have to go. War is for other people; war is for those who volunteer. It doesn’t concern us so long as we can sit on our asses, eat chicken wings and watch the NFL.
Enjoy the Veterans Day sales. And work for peace.
And listen to Marlene ask the question.