by Michael Liss
This past Sunday, November 11, marked the Centennial of Armistice Day, the European commemoration of the agreement to end World War I. Representatives from more than 60 countries attended carefully choreographed ceremonies to honor the sacrifice of those who fought.
The Europeans take the Great War seriously. Americans really don’t. It just doesn’t feel like our war. To us, it’s an old chest filled with musty, tattered maps and the remains of broken monarchies and shattered ambitions. Even the early film footage, jerky and grainy in black and white, looks more like a silent movie than something real. We know we participated, and naturally we were heroic. Our boys saved the Allied powers from the Huns, all the while singing “Over There” and wooing the local pulchritude. It’s what we broad-shouldered, brave, optimistic, can-do Americans do.
But, if you want to contextualize our actual contribution, consider the following:
The United States committed 2.8 million servicemen to the war, and suffered 53,402 killed in action, 63,114 deaths from disease and other causes, and about 205,000 wounded. On an absolute level, that’s a lot of lives. But, by contrast, in just one extended, insane battle, the Europeans fought the Somme Offensive, with more than 3 million men engaged and 1 million casualties. Then there was Gallipoli, the infamous, disastrous push by then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill in the Dardanelles, which provided the Ottoman Empire with its last meaningful military victory, and included a horrific sacrifice by ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand combined forces) and half a million casualties. And Verdun (between the French and the Germans), which lasted close to 11 months in 1916, and yielded nearly 700,000 casualties and more than 300,000 dead. And Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres, Flanders Fields), between Great Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, in July to November 1917, in which the dead and wounded may have been as high as 700,000. And Operation Michael, the last major German offensive in the West (Germany, the UK, France, and, finally, the United States), which had almost 500,000 casualties. That, of course, skips every battle between the Germans and the Russians.
Read about these and you are stunned by not just the numbers (the human cost of the Somme alone was comparable to the total of all US casualties for the entirety of World War II) but the sheer arrogance and pig-headedness of both the military and political leadership of the time. I don’t know if it’s possible to understand the thinking that you could apply 19th Century concepts of cavalry charges (without the horses) in the face of 20th Century killing technology. It takes an astounding amount of myopia to see what is in front of you and refuse to adapt, and almost a contempt for human life to see it wasted this way. We talk about The Lost Generation (in Europe, the “Generation of 1914”), but they were lost by leadership who valued their lives far too little. We have to ask ourselves, what impelled so many civilized nations to walk down this road of utter and mindless self-destruction?
You can’t begin without recognizing that WW I didn’t just happen. Europe had been seething for decades. The ground was still hot from the First and Second Balkan wars (one Balkan War not being enough). But, if the tinder was there, the match was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire crown. The killer, Gavrilo Princip, was a Bosnian Serb member of Young Bosnia, a group seeking to end Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
That should alert you to two critical tectonic forces. A monarchy that no longer exists, exercising control over an adjoining country, which had previously been under control of yet another monarchy (the Ottoman Empire) that also no longer exists. Add to this stew the rest of the Balkans, riven by centuries-old tribal rivalries, constantly shifting borders, two alpha-dogs in Serbia and Bosnia, and the toxic catnip that being “the soft underbelly of Europe” represented to other European powers. The stage was set.
Then, an ominous pause of almost a month as Austria-Hungary evaluated its options, and then issued an ultimatum to Serbia. Serbia considered it, consulted with its Russian allies, and acceded to certain points, but not the entire proposal. It was not enough. Austria-Hungary’s pride (and hunger) unsated, and being emboldened by a German “Blank Check” of unconditional support, it declared war against Serbia. Both the Germans and the Austrians gambled that the Russians, who had shown a recent predilection for backing down, would do so again. This time, they were wrong. Russia saw a need to come to its Slavic brother Serbia’s defense. We now had a regional war.
It would soon go continental, driven by the incredible entanglement of mutual defense treaties. The Russians and the Serbs and the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians weren’t the only pairs of “allies.” The British had an arrangement with Japan; France had one with Russia and another with Belgium. Finally, France, Britain, and Russia came together as the Triple Entente. As one country after another entered the war, their allies felt compelled to honor their agreements, eventually sorting themselves out into two opposing teams: The Allied Powers (the Triple Entente, then Italy, eventually joined by United States) and the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.
Of course, these countries didn’t come in just out of a sense of honor. Opportunism and empire-building played a critical role. All thought of themselves as great powers. They had spent the last few decades in competitive arms buildups, secret diplomacy that often showed a stunning lack of consistency and integrity, and a globe-spanning grand colonialism that allowed every country to dream of more land and more conquests. Those conquests could be on other continents (Africa, South America, Asia) or, quite literally, right next door. Early 20th Century European states did not see the map of Europe as immutable. Entire regions belonging to adjoining countries might be up for annexation, as they had been for the entire 19th Century. What’s more, the collective leadership of Europe seemed to agree that to the strongest went the spoils. All those “allies” were also rivals.
This made a good little war seem a bit appealing to many, not unlike a duel on the field of honor. It would be quick; you would bloody the nose of your opponent and walk away with a deep harbor, some fertile lands, perhaps some mining interests, or even a collection of factories.
Germany certainly thought that way. Since Bismarck, they had been building military strength, both on land and at sea, testing others for weakness, and pining for recognition. They resented the British for the size of their Empire, had contempt for the perceived weakness of the French, and saw the “Slavic Menace” as existential, yet something that could be defeated easily, if it were done soon enough. They were confident they could fight a two-front war, with speed being the essential component in the West. Their Schlieffen Plan called for a quick thrust through then-neutral Belgium to defeat the French and bottle up the British Expeditionary Force. The Kaiser told his soldiers they would be home “before the autumn leaves,” and what evidence we have indicates that most of them, as well as the public, thought the same.
In the actual event, things didn’t quite work out as planned. In both the West and East, Germany’s early successes were ultimately met with determined resistance. Its ally, Austria, with an ambition greater than its abilities, decided to see what goodies it could take from the Italians, and it bogged down as well. Suddenly, Germany was in a three-front war of attrition—no dashing cavalry, no lightening victories. The leaves began to fall, and the troops stayed to watch them.
While there’s little doubt that the making of European policy was dominated by the aristocracy and the military, what about the home front, what about the opinions of the best minds? In Germany, many of them were ardent supporters of the war. There was the “Manifesto of 93,” signed by 93 scientists, authors, theologians, artists and historians, musical composers and playwrights, including a dozen past and future Nobel Prize winners. “As representatives of German Science and Art, we hereby protest to the civilized world against the lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavoring to stain the honor of Germany in her hard struggle for existence—in a struggle that has been forced on her.”
Some of these best minds took a more active role than boosterism. On April 22, 1915, at the second Battle at Ypres, Germany shattered the 1899 Hague Declaration banning the use of chemical weapons by using massive amounts of chlorine gas. Otto Hahn, a future Nobelist in Chemistry (1944) helped install the cylinders, after being convinced by Fritz Haber (Nobel in Chemistry in 1918) that poison gas would shorten the fighting. Later, Haber would recruit two other future Nobel prize winners, James Franck and Gustav Hertz.
Haber’s initiative ushered in a more lethal phase of the war. Once the Germans used it, the French, then the British, and then finally the United States began to develop their own brands of toxins. In a cruel twist, Haber’s wife, the brilliant Clara Immerwahl, a PhD in her own right, grew increasingly haunted by the use of gas. She begged her husband to stop, he refused, and one day, after a particularly heated row between them, he stalked off to conduct an attack on the Eastern Front. In his absence, she committed suicide.
Of course, Haber was wrong. The gas didn’t end the war, nor the introduction of tanks, nor dirigibles and planes dropping new kinds of bombs, nor extraordinary amounts of artillery. Men were stuffed into uniforms, ferried to the front with bayonet and spade in hand, and, on orders from detached commanders who saw their troops as mere abstractions on a chess board, sent to charge into the machine gun fire.
Again, one has to ask, why, when it became obvious there would be no quick and decisive victories, when the death count was mounting far higher than anyone could have anticipated, did it have to continue? Why didn’t saner heads draw back in 1915 and 1916?
They did, a bit. There were some peace discussions going on, even as early as 1914, with the Germans attempting to cut a deal with the Russians and even the French. Before US entry into the war, Woodrow Wilson made proposals that would have largely restored the status quo ante. In 1917, the Pope, worried that Europe was falling apart, proposed something similar to Wilson’s framework. Finally, the Austrians, recognizing their own efforts flagging, and with famine at home, reached out to the British and French, offering some concessions. But, with the exception of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March of 1918, where the new Bolshevik unilaterally settled with the Central Powers, none of these even approached fruition. In hindsight, one can see why—none of the combatants could bring themselves to say yes. Time and again, the parties wanted things they hadn’t achieved on the battlefield. They were still building empires at the price of lives.
And so, it went on. More trenches and barbed wire, more machine guns and gas. More corpses and more mourners. From the mouth of Remarque’s fictitious Paul Baumer, “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.”
Annihilation came. When it was over, four dynasties had fallen—Austria, Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Between 17 and 20 million died, another 20 million wounded, the majority, civilians. The victors imposed an unwise peace at Versailles, paving the way for a second, far more destructive war. The fields of France and Belgium, pockmarked by trenches and adorned with barbed wire, were later filled with cemeteries. They were crowded yesterday with ordinary people carrying poppies, paying their respects to the fallen, and perhaps, to the end of innocence itself.
“We are the dead,” the poet said. Their grave markers stand, not just as a reminder of their sacrifice, but also as a dignified, silent reproach to the leaders who failed them.