The Bonfire of War
As I begin to write this article, it is August 4. One hundred year ago today one of history’s gravest misjudgments occurred when the great powers of Europe went to war.
It was also a day made famous by British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who is best remembered for his grim observation that, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”
The war also shattered one of Europe’s most glorious summers in memory, during a month traditionally devoted to leisurely vacations, the same wishful thinking that had occurred in the Boer War gripped the British public: the widespread belief, including some in public office who ought to have known better, that the war no one wanted would surely be over by Christmas.
What ensued was beyond comprehension. World War I was the most unnecessary war ever fought and it demonstrated with horrific consequences that modern warfare had evolved well beyond the slaughter seen on a smaller scale at Omdurman in 1898, and had far outpaced what the Boer War had foretold about the damage that the newest weapons of war could inflict.
Over the next four years there would occur unprecedented bloodshed. It was as if the civilized world had gone mad. A century that had started with such promise was suddenly and fatally thrust into a conflict that eventually engulfed much of the world and claimed the lives of millions of soldiers, and is thought to have wounded some twenty million civilians.
Ever since, historians have pondered in vain the need for this war, for its folly, and wondered what recklessness turned an attainable peace into a conflict that should never have been. Historian John Keegan has asked the lingering question why the combatants committed “the totality of their young manhood to mutual and existentially pointless slaughter?”
Thus committed, it was the thousands of ordinary young men on each side of the conflict that paid the price for the intransigence of their political leaders in what, in retrospect, was the most colossal folly in the history of mankind. As Winston Churchill would later note so perceptively in his 1930 memoir, and what others have learned in other times and places, committing a nation to war sets in motion events that run beyond all control.
What began in Europe quickly spread like a pandemic and engulfed much of the world. Many were nameless places memorable only for their toll of death. From the mud and trenches of Belgium and France the war spread to the Dardanelles, the forbidding rocky landscape of Gallipoli, and Eastern Europe where, at Tannenberg, and on other battlefields, men fought and died for scraps of terrain that were often measured in yards, and of questionable military value.
The ugly scar that defined the front lines of the combatants defaced Western Europe from the North Sea to Switzerland. As William Manchester has written of the deadlock: “A wavering seam of trenches … began at the Swiss border and ended 466 miles away on the shore at Nieuport, just below Ostend … The density of human concentration was unprecedented: there was one soldier for every four inches of front.”
With soldiers so tightly packed, facing each other, the only inevitable result was death that became the hallmark of World War I. The conditions under which these men fought and lived were almost indescribable: mud, filth, disease, poison gas, post-traumatic stress, lack of sanitation, barbed wire, extreme cold in winter and stifling heat in summer – all were the handmaidens of trench warfare.
The so-called Great War was “great” only in the sense of the vast numbers of men who died fighting a needless conflict in the killing fields of Europe that ought to have been prevented, but instead spun out of control, and was overseen by clueless politicians. World War I was a classic example of the principle most of us wish were a reality: that politicians who start wars should be obliged to actually fight in them.
Before it ended, once placid sites like Verdun and the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres entered the lexicon of horror and pointless death, their only legacy the cemeteries of white and black crosses and memorials that sprouted like wild mushrooms and still haunt visitors by the sheer size of their numbers.
Nearly an entire generation of young men on all sides of the war would die. In Britain alone more than six hundred cemeteries would be constructed to bury the dead.
Despite the mistaken belief that the war was not going to entail much more than skirmishing, by the early autumn of 1914, a growing stalemate in France led to a relentless rain of death to the participants that was wasting lives for no discernible purpose. French and British casualties were already more than a million and growing daily, most from artillery and mortar fire from both sides of the formidable trenches.
As Manchester has observed, “In the course of an average day on the western front, there were 2,553 men on both sides killed in action, 9,121 wounded, and 1,164 missing.” Thousands of British Tommies were buried with words on their headstones that read: “A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.”
In all, the death toll would prove staggering and by the time the war mercifully ended on November 11, 1918: one million British and Empire, approximately 1,380,000 French, approximately two million Germans, 460,000 Italians, 1,700,000 to as many as 2.2 million Russians, an estimated 771,000 Turks, 1,500,000 soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and 116,708 Americans. In addition to the military casualties, as many as ten million civilians are believed to have perished. The precise numbers of the military and civilians who were killed in the war will never be known.
None of this seemed even remotely possible when the war began in August 1914. Yet within days of Britain’s declaration of war The Economist was already presciently calling it, “Perhaps the greatest tragedy in human history.”
The final word on World War I belongs, appropriately, to its last surviving soldier, a Tommy who fought in trenches of Ypres and Passchendaele and lived to be 111 years old. His name was Henry John “Harry” Patch and not long before his death in 2009 he remarked: “It was not worth even one life.”
As the author of his obituary in London’s The Telegraph, Elizabeth Grice, wrote: “In the end, Harry Patch stood alone like a stalk of wheat that the reaper had missed. With his passing, the terrible harvest of the First World War is finally in. Or so he wanted to believe.”