The guns fell silent

The guns fell silent

On the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month of 1918, the guns fell silent all across the Western Front. From the sea to Switzerland, quiet descended upon the trenches. The fighting continued, however, until the appointed hour, feeding more sacrifices to Moloch. Henry Nicholas John Gunther was the last American soldier to die in the war to end all wars, dying at 10:59 am. He was 23 years old.

In this country, we don’t commemorate the First World War much. Yes, we have a holiday; but where in Europe this is still Armistice Day, here it’s been converted into a general day for all veterans. We entered the war at the last minute, and never knew why we were fighting. But, to be frank, you could have asked a Briton, a Frenchman, or a German, and they wouldn’t have known either.

Europe in 1914 had been at peace for more than 40 years. Economies were interlinked by trade and finance. War seemed impossible in such an integrated world system. Does this sound familiar?

But “civilized” Europe still had a barbarian heart. The major states had been involved in internecine warfare for much of the previous 300 years. Granted, since the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, warfare had become a thing of professional armies. For the most part, civilians weren’t despoiled. (Russia in 1812 being the exception, as Russia is always the exception.)

Forty years of peace between the great powers had not rid them of their appetite for war. And as Britain and Germany, France and Russia, angled for position and supremacy, what was unthinkable was being thought of and planned for. France and Russia allied themselves, pledging to go to war should either be attacked. Germany, with few options, allied itself with the carcass of Habsburg Austria. Britain haughtily said it would only intervene in a European war should Belgium’s neutrality be violated. As that was the crux of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan to knock out France in a month before Russia could bring its millions to bear on Prussia, His Majesty’s Government’s die was already cast. (And, of course, it, too, had a secret treaty with France.)

Ordinary people were hungry for war, too. It was a fever. It was thought it would be a quick, glorious war. Sclerotic France could not withstand the Prussians, and Russia was corrupt husk, a slave nation. Britain was interested solely in its overseas empire. The war would invigorate a Europe slid into decadence.

We know the rest. Trenches from the Swiss border to the sea. Four years of grinding horror in the West, of pogroms and massacres in the East. The Russian Revolution, the Kaiser’s abdication, the breakup of Austria-Hungary into constituent, hostile parts. The ordering of the Middle East in such a manner that Al Qaeda and ISIS were almost inevitable. The death, the death by the millions, the carnage unimagined by the men planning the war, and by the men eagerly going off to war as the guns of August began their monotonous drone.

The best that can be said of any war is that it was necessary. That is what could be said of the Second World War, a war upon which humanity’s fate rested. That cannot be said of the Great War. It was planned and begun in hubris and blindness, the match lit by an assassin in Sarajevo. Medieval notions of honor and pride led to the first modern, mechanical war. No one was prepared for it. French poilous marched off in their bright blue and red uniforms, and were mowed down by the thousands. Men were fed into battle after battle—THIS one will be the breakout which will win the war! Civilians suffered as they hadn’t since Protestants and Catholics sowed destruction over the Holy Roman Empire.

And in the end, nothing was resolved. Recrimination and blame laid the groundwork for the next war, one even more apocalyptic, which saw Europe almost collapse into itself.

We must remember those who died in that war. And we must remember to finally achieve an end to killing and murder, in order to make their sacrifice have any meaning. We are, as yet, far from that. And with each generation which knows not war, it becomes easier to imagine that one will be easy to fight, and easy to win. After 40 years of peace, they thought the same thing in 1914. We still suffer from that miscalculation.



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