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Neil Earle wonders if the First World War really was an 'unredeemed failure'

“The First World War (1914-1918) changed everything,” writes British historian Niall Ferguson of Harvard.

Neil Earle

The effects of what Europeans call “The Great War” in August, 1914 —100 years ago this summer — are already being excavated and commemorated.

Fallout from that unprecedented clash of nations is with us still, most notably this summer in the porous boundaries evident in the heart of the Middle East in places such as Iraq, carved from the corpse of the old Ottoman Empire.

“Disillusion” was American historian Barbara Tuchman’s one-word summary in her 1962 prize-winning "The Guns of August," about a war often billed as “the war to end war.” Yet President John F. Kennedy allegedly presented to his staff Tuchman’s masterful piece of history to avoid the “trap” of war by lock-step inevitability.

War through a sombre lens

One of the enduring lessons of 1914 was that the Great Powers must not be drawn into third party conflicts. I remember telling one anxious young student of mine the week of the American-led invasion of Iraq, “This is limited war. Great powers are not facing off against one another with all they have. Thank the Lord for that.”

Still, the well-remembered slaughter of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel in July, 1916 has made us in the 10th province view the First World War through a sombre lens. In high school we learned how the French army lost 50,000 men to gain 500 yards of territory in Champagne. A million Frenchmen and Germans eventually died in the struggle over the frontier fort at Verdun. These losses shook France to her foundations. In some ways she never has recovered.

Momentous, too, was the aftermath, the way the Second World War grew out of the first: Germany’s wounded pride, American disillusionment with “the war to end wars,” Anglo-French determination to remain empires no matter what, keeping the “game of nations” alive.

A brilliant French journalist, Raymond Aron, in a book called "The Century of Total War," sketched the causes of the war with admirable compression. “The growing tension centered about three principal difficulties: the rivalry between Austria and Russia in the Balkans, the Franco-German conflict over Morocco, and the arms race — on sea between Britain and Germany, and on land between all the powers. The two last causes had produced the situation; the first one kindled the spark.” (page 16)

Looking back, the consequences of August, 1914 were huge.

War unleashed new problems


Europe suffered the death of millions of men in what seemed a lost cause. Civil war convulsed the new Soviet Union and an influenza epidemic in 1918-1919 killed 40 million around the world. All this in spite of genuine heroics such as the 10 sharpshooters from the Newfoundland Regiment holding the line at Monchy-le-Pruex for nine hours against hundreds of the enemy on April 14, 1917.

In an extraordinary gesture, all the privates and non-coms involved received the Military Medal. It was, as Ed Roberts wrote in the September, 2011 Carbonear Compass, the regiment’s greatest victory. That November the regiment received the designation “Royal” from King George V, the only such unit to be so honoured in the field during the war.

Still, most felt that the war had only unleashed new problems. A hard new cynicism gripped many people, evoked in the United States in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. Newfoundland’s wounds were felt not only in the loss of her irreplaceable sons but also in $13 million of unpaid war loans made mostly to the Mother Country.

In 1914, pastors and priests egged on their young congregants with blithe assurances that God was on the side of the nationality to which they belonged. The backlash against churchly participation in a war that took nearly 10 million lives, including two million Germans, still lingers, especially in Europe.

The Roman Catholic theologian Gerard Lohfink saw the repercussions: “That in 1914 Christians went enthusiastically to war against Christians, baptized against baptized, was not seen in any way a destruction of what the church is …”

Reliance on authority

The new, disturbing ideas of Sigmund Freud now seemed superior to the sermons being preached on Sunday and Albert Einstein’s thoughts on “relativity” began to enter the 20th century lexicon as an excuse for “anything goes."

On the other hand a levelling trend was in vogue, moving millions from their hitherto reliance on authority. Women made some important gains. After serving heroically on the home front and the defense plants, Canadian women were given the vote in 1917, three years ahead of their American cousins.

Newfoundland followed suit in 1925.

All these events were shocks to the fragile assumptions of the 1914 world. This partly explains the tendency to write off the First World War as a totally unredeemed failure, especially the peace treaties at Versailles that ended the war. Yet Barbara Tuchman and another lady historian, Margaret Macmillan, formerly of the University of Toronto, would not go that far.

Civilized norms still held fast overall. German and British troops did mingle in no man's land that first Christmas of the war and Germany later surrendered on honorable terms.

Those terms enshrined in the famous "Fourteen Points" probably shortened the war from being an even more pointless fight to the finish. MacMillan argues in her provocative account "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World" that the efforts of those sincerely committed to a just peace with Germany at the Versailles Conference in 1919 were “not completely wasted.”

In the end, Germany was not dismembered, as some wanted.

Attributes of hope, resilience

Peace conferences often have fatal blind spots but MacMillan argues for a new spirit abroad after 1919. Somehow, nations and national grouping and their leaders were going to be held more accountable, and there was a sense of a moral order operating even among nations.

Consider the worldwide revulsion against poison gas, for example.

Even Barbara Tuchman, for all her stress on “disillusionment,” was struck by the human attributes of hope and resilience that may afford more detached future generations a slightly altered view.

“Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope … that it could never happen again.” That hope may not have been fulfilled, but she then adds how “the mirage of a better world glimmered beyond the shell-pitted wastes and leafless stumps … ” (pages 439-440).

Kevin Major relates how John Shiwak, an Inuit trapper from Rigolet who turned into an excellent scout for his regiment, “fought and died alongside ‘corner boys’ of St. John’s.” The Labrador volunteers had paid the price, he said, so that “their capital city wouldn’t lord it over them in quite the same way” (As Near to Heaven by Sea, page 334).

A great levelling was at hand, though delayed in still traditionalist Newfoundland.

A lesson bitterly learned

Perhaps all this is another way of saying that we seem to be a resilient and determined species. The League of Nations came directly out of the Great War and out of its failure came, indirectly, World War Two, but also the United Nations, keeping alive a sense, however obscured, of global values and norms.

The Americans this time around doubled down and ensured the headquarters would sit on the Hudson River so that the greatest world power would be officially tied to its goals and purposes. A lesson bitterly learned.

The lessons of 1914 still live on, submerged though they often are amid recollections of the sobering body count.

Still, it may be more possible with the passage of time to lend some “dignity and sense,” in Tuchman’s words, to the sacrifices that the guns of August, 1914 called forth. After all, voluntary sacrifice and loyalty to one’s mates are never out of fashion.

— Neil Earle is originally from Carbonear South. He teaches church history for Grace Communion Seminary. He writes from Duarte, Calif. Duarte is a city in Los Angeles County.

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