On August 4, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium to begin one of the most devastating wars in human history. By the end of that war, more than 15 million were dead from 28 different countries. Millions more were wounded. It was the first war that could truly be called a world war, with fronts in Europe, in the Middle East and Ottoman Empire, and in Africa. Some of the battles that would become famous in that war, like the Battle of the Somme, witnessed such carnage that the human mind could not comprehend it without teetering on the edge of insanity.
The carnage was unbelievable. Countless veterans would come home from that war suffering the effects of wounds caused by weapons that were used for the first time in history: the tank, the machine gun, aerial bombing, and gas/chemical warfare. Tens of thousands of those who had been there — who had witnessed the horrors firsthand — came home suffering from psychological wounds so profound that the medical profession could only name the phenomenon with the language of poetic metaphor: shell shock.
The war raged across the world for four long years, leaving death and destruction in unimaginable proportions in its wake. It would finally come to an end not so much from clear victories as from the sheer exhaustion of the populations of Europe. The Russian government would collapse in March of 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution would begin in November of that year. On November 4, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian empire agreed to an armistice.
A German offensive along the western front was driven back by a series of successful counter-offensives which would later devolve into the awful stalemate of trench warfare. Revolution was rumbling in Germany as well, and Germany finally signed an armistice on November 11, 1918. We still celebrate that event to this day, now called Veterans Day. At the end of the war the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, both of which had reigned for centuries, no longer existed. The United States did not enter the war until 1917, a year before its end. It was not long ago that last living survivor of that war died.
Too Fast to Be Shut Down
A little history here: On June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke and presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Serbia. This event is usually pointed to as the cause of the war. Over the next few days Austria-Hungary issued ultimatums to Serbia, rejected the Serbian replies and eventually, on July 28, declared war on Serbia and began bombardment of Belgrade the next day. Germany offered its aid to Austria-Hungary on the 5th of July, and Russia began to mobilize its forces in defense of Serbia on the 30th of July. Things began to happen too fast to be shut down.
The momentum toward war had already gotten out of control. Nation after nation began to take sides and to mobilize their military forces. One after another declared war. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1. It had already entered Luxembourg as a preliminary to a likely invasion of Belgium and France. France had mobilized but was not yet involved. England, too, mobilized its troops. The United States, at this time, remained neutral.
On August 3rd, the streets of Berlin, Germany were filled with huge crowds. Soldiers marched with flowers in place of the bayonets, and women wept for patriotic joy in their arms as they walked beside them. The British Embassy was attacked by the crowds, shouting, “God punish England.” Otherwise the crowds were generally full of celebratory patriotism, singing national songs. Students, filled with nationalistic fervor went into cafes all over the city and beat up anyone who didn’t stand for the national anthem. The beast of nationalism was calling forth the dogs of war. There would be no going back until utter exhaustion and mind-boggling devastation would finally quell those two irrational offsprings of the martial mentality. But only for a time. WWII, would begin only 21 years later.
“The beast of nationalism was calling forth the dogs of war.”
On August 4, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium and the war exploded into its full fury. Why Belgium? Germany had threatened to declare war on Belgium if it did not give free passage to German soldiers to cross over its territory to invade France. Belgium did not comply. We must remember that Germany, Belgium, and France, along with England were already in economic and political competition with one another as they all held world-wide colonial empires, especially in Africa. The classic film The African Queen dealt with many of the effects of WWI in Africa.
WWI began the bloodiest century in human history. Because of the new weaponry that entered the history of war during that war, and the horrors that they produced in sheer numbers of casualties, both dead and wounded, people really thought that that war would be the “war to end all wars.” Sadly, this would not be so. Over the course of that 100 years that followed the world has continued to go to war and to develop weaponry that has surpassed the destructive powers of the weapons of WWI by exponential percentages.
The dogs of war, sadly, still lurk in the shadows of our humanity. There are still those who think that their worldview is the one that all peoples should bend to voluntarily or, if not voluntarily, then through the madness of war. Because of this, we still have a duty to defend ourselves from those who wish, for whatever reasons, to continue that madness. But we must also train ourselves, and be prepared to wage peace. One day we may be able to see the madness of unrestrained ego and irrational nationalism for what they are and finally turn away from them in fraternal commitment to one another, even though this will always be difficult. After all, if we can be heroic in war, we are surely just as capable of being heroic in our efforts toward peace. That may, indeed, require even more heroism.
There is no group of people that desires the end of war more than those who have been to the center of the hell that is war. We are those who have been caught up in the maelstrom of the madness of war. We know its effects intimately. We have seen what it can do to our friends, indeed, to our own humanity. Every veteran wants his or her war to be the “war to end all wars.” Hope springs eternal, even in the face of the recurrent madness of war. Yet, hope must be lived. It is not a passive verb.
“Hope springs eternal, even in the face of the recurrent madness of war.”
Sorry for the long-winded reflection on this 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI. I guess that reflecting on the nature and the history of that war, along with my own experience of war, and my own advancing years, have begun to turn me into a philosopher of sorts. Forgive my foolishness.
I ask you to remember those who have served. Listen to their experience, support them in their recoveries. And help us here at The Veterans Site in our efforts to serve those veterans who have been affected by the experiences of war and homelessness by hitting on the free donation button on our homepage. You are making a difference. Thank you.
1) American soldiers on the way to break the Hindenburg Line, September 29, 1918. (Collier’s New Encyclopedia, v. 10, 1921, via Wikimedia Commons).
2) Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917. The leading soldier is Gunner James Fulton and the second soldier is Lieutenant Anthony Devine. The men belong to a battery of the 10th Field Artillery Brigade. (Photo by Frank Hurley).
3) Men of U.S. 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918. (U.S. Army photo).