The unGreat war
The unGreat War
Beyond the myths of the Great War.
Just over a century ago the guns of August began to burp their violence into the soils of Europe as the blood of its many soldiers began to spill into history’s romantic illusions of not just another great war but of the Great War. As memories fade and historical depictions glare far into the present of the truly heroic exploits of the many doomed to fight this unnecessary war, the lessons are never learned and perhaps never will be. Lessons cannot be learned if the facts and realities of such Great moments in time are so stained with illusions of such splendid reverence.
The classical depiction of the War is one of the Central powers aggression, Germany, Turkey and Austro-Hungary, against the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia, one of militant imperialism and the other of virtuous democracy. A war commencing after the haphazard assassination of a monarch at the hands of young nationalists. It is an example of the futility of rigid alliances and concealed political promises, one of jealous and dying empires and desperate nationals. It is one that is exhibited as being a heroic entry of the American democracy as saviour of ‘free’ Europe and it is an incubator for so many revolutionaries blossoming so terrifyingly thanks to the many circumstances of wartimes brutality.
It is not a case of defending the defeated, those empires that fell immediately to history or those nations condemned to pay reparations for instigating violence. Nor is it a case of switching the blame and so simply saying that the victors were the agitators and did more to lead Europe to war. It is merely a case of realising that war is an inevitable nature of such institutions. Arrogant leaders and elites from every strata of society safe in their positions of culture and profession looking down on their many obedient minions employing the religions of nation, faith and Empire in order to elicit such suicidal and bloody loyalty. It is with such men and women in holy pulpits and thrones of power that the World shall unfortunately continue to see a repetition of such violence.
This is a fact and an ongoing condition for humanity and its relationship with rule and conquest. It is however with the colouring of such histories that a society and civilisation faces a true crisis of truth, it is in a modern pornographic lust for warfare and a historical romantic fondness to create so many heroes from past men of glory that a religious dogma arises. These moments and characters of glorious days are enshrined and bronzed, heralded and idolised, their stories told in such sanctifying ways as though a few represent the many and that any endeavour undertaken by such heroic players must be by its very nature virtuous. A grand futility and malignant vileness could never lurk beneath the actions of so many noble heroes as it is so faithfully believed and taught.
As these European masters of so many ‘inferior’ peoples ruled far and wide over ever expanding colonial empires, they did so with varying amounts of self-declared justification. Often it was cited that Western Civilisation and its many benefits were being brought to these dark and backwards lands. And yet as this wisdom, technology, order and civilisation was being introduced and imposed upon so many, the champions of these virtues were tearing their precious continent apart and savaging a generation with such mechanised horror that not even the distant barbarians in their non European backwardness could ever hope to imitate nor exemplify in such murderous ferocity.
It was in 1908 when the three major belligerents nearly came to blows over Morocco. France had invaded and then conquered the north African nation of Morocco which set off protestations from other nations including Germany. The French grab of Morocco led to Italy being granted Libya, a guarantee that it had been assured should France gain Morocco and Germany itself was appeased by being given territories along the Congo river in South Central Africa. The crisis saw the German navy sending gunboats along the North African coast in a threatening manner while Britain was determined to send a force across the channel in order to bolster the French national defences. The incident led to Britain and France growing closer and securing military guarantees between the two nations, including the agreement that in times of war it would be the Royal Navy defending the channel while the French navy would secure the Mediterranean Sea thus concentrating the efforts of each maritime force. Further isolating Germany all the more and creating an atmosphere of general European animosity and enhancing the inevitability of war.
It is with a degree of humour and admiration that a good many look back at the professional officer class and their idiotic management of the men beneath them, having their brave soldiers march across scarred Earth and into oncoming fire with parade ground order and mindless discipline. It is scoffed at and yet the brave soldiers still did this so obediently and the people at home still adored their military and governments so very much despite such dismissive waste of human life. It was perhaps a credit to the effectiveness of public education that so many could become easily educated enough to be obedient to their ‘betters’ to know enough to trust in their officers and the rigid doctrines so as to throw themselves into the meat grinder. Such an effective system that it allowed familiars and civilians at home to willingly allow these methods to be tried over and over again, and to have the same faith in the same institutions and governance with each and every war thereafter despite the professional expert’s inability at fulfilling their promises while exhibiting incompetent eagerness at which so many human beings were wasted and destroyed. And such rigid traditionalism under the guise of discipline is still maintained and practiced at the expense of practical and lifesaving methods, as the battlefield and enemy’s nature shifts and changes the militaries adherence to hindering traditions is so very celebrated and embraced despite the scores of obedient braves that lay in unmarked graves despite the smartness of their step and crispness of their starched fatigues.
It is a war where the innocent truce of Christmas 1914, that so famously broke out on the Western front and yet was observed in patches in the East, is so celebrated by the faithful and not alike. That somehow these treasonous men in defying their orders as they fraternised with their mortal enemy on this one sacred day is now so splendidly considered a monument to human civility among the senseless barbarity of human mass slaughter. Many of those involved were reprimanded or disciplined and despite this bold and noble gesture of human interaction across the lines with those whose language, national origin and martial costume depicted them as enemies, individuals embraced individuals. And so while many condemned theological religions for being responsible for all the ills in the World it was on that one night that men’s faith in a higher religion superseded their religion of state and saw them exchange gifts and handshakes and not bullet and bayonet. It is with confused dialogue that such admiration and joyous fondness swells the hearts of the masses as they continue to condone the very violent calamity that had brought these very men to this frozen blood stained land while also fondly imagining a soccer game in no man’s land between foes.
Despite the despotic imperialism of all the nations involved and their savage rule over those foreign peoples that were considered colonials. The First World War was one that saw a more direct and intentional mass assault on civilians. While Sherman’s 1864 bloody march to the sea, the previous century’s siege of Paris or Britain’s concentration camps in the Boer War were examples of brutality against familiar looking civilians. World War One made it so common place and so readily justified that it opened the way for the eventual terrors of World War Two and every other war of the twentieth and twenty first century. It would become a new one hundred years where unarmed citizens were the priority. It did not matter if it was the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys’ doing it, in fact the supposed ‘good guys’ were the ones that championed such methods all the more in their many blood spilling of political implementation. Nationalism, romance and a good education would teach the populaces that it all was justified and a necessity to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. It would lead to a century where one hundred years later the intentional targeting of a non-combatant hospital is so overlooked by the general public and self-justified by the military that no justice could ever hope to find the victims and no safeguards or morality would dare ever emerge again to prevent such intentional killings of doctors and patients alike from happening in the future.
Young nations like Australia looked at the opportunity of global war as a moment in time to stand tall among the empires and great nations so as to etch out a name for itself. It managed to do this with fortunes of victory, bravery of its number and outright bloody enthusiasm. Enthusiasm that saw its ANZACs killing prisoners or gunning down surrendering enemies in their energy for battle, realities that occurred more often than the iconic myths of heralded heroes like Don Simpson and his donkey. It was not as though Australia was new to war, the Boer war had been only a recent memory for many and now as an ‘independent’ Commonwealth nation Australia along with her smaller neighbour New Zealand could join Britain in its newest continental and eventually wider expeditionary endeavour. No Hun nor Turk looked upon Australia with malevolent eyes and yet it was with all the enthusiasm of a young Imperial player that Australia and its warriors departed to enter foreign lands, as would be the case for subsequent generations, to act as a willing coalition partner in aggressive warfare far and away. But most importantly for the young nation a national identity was invented out of true moments of bravery but not always out of true intentions of nobility. A new day of religion was found on 25 April 1915, when along with other Allied nations the ANZACs invaded foreign lands and despite the need to blame incompetent Englanders, our own commanders and warriors on the ground failed to accomplish the objective. And just as Dunkirk would become a symbol for Britain years later, so too was Gallipoli to become an emblem for Australia, the Anglo martial condition of triumphant defeats would rally on.
For many the Great War was fought in the apparent defence of liberty and democratic people’s being threatened by a martial Kaiser. At least this was the case in the West, the savage Hun tore through neutral Belgian and threatened France. These democratic and liberal societies were not only losing their independence but apparent travesties and criminal conduct was being committed by the occupying Germans. For the most part it was revealed as propaganda and lies but it was needed in order to paint the narrative for neutrals and future allies. The German was mechanised and evil. The Franco-Belgians quirky traditionalists. While such Germanic cruelty was being conjured up by British propagandists, real brutality was being exhibited by the Russian military as it entered the German frontiers. History goes on to show us that the Allies however never commit crimes.
Whether the democratic monarchy of Germany, a system of government similar to Britain’s, was another Napoleonic France was never the point for many involved. While both were militant and aggressive, the new Germany especially genocidal in its colonial lands, what made it any different in abhorrent conduct to the nations that opposed it besides war time and post war poetic rhetoric? Perception and propaganda is a most powerful combination in both war and peace it is how rulers and regimes maintain such control over those beneath it. It is usually how those beyond the borders tend to know more about a national governments conduct abroad than the very people suffering beneath it. This is the case for all governments and regimes, just as it is the case that many regimes colour the incoming perceptions of foreigners in order to fill a genocidal or wartime need to dehumanise these others. It is how every German can suddenly become a Teutonic mass killer, every Japanese a slanted eye treacherous Nip or every Islamic man an Islamo-fascist maniac terrorist. It is the societal fears of a time so perfectly encapsulated by propaganda, the scape goating of a group or groups in order to simplify the complex, off set blame or to justify aggressive conduct. After all, how else do you hope to get so many supposedly good hearted, democratic minded individuals to applaud and cheer for the firebombing of entire cities full of civilians, the extrajudicial killing of untried human beings abroad based upon suspicion or the slow starvation of an entire nation with cruel and lengthy embargoes. World War One was the age of such perfectly effective propaganda and it helped to silence reason at home, along with the arrest of dissenters while also granting such mass support for jingoistic murder.
Nearly fifteen years earlier these united nations of combined colonial powers had fought alongside one another against the Boxers in China. When upstart locals stood against the rising foreign dominance in their homeland. These radical Chinese ‘boxers’ steeled with their martial training and beliefs, naively believing that courage and ability was enough to defy modern weapons of war, stood fast before the combined armies of the ‘great’ colonial powers. The Chinese boxers were defeated and China would go on to remain a patchwork of foreign colonies and a place for foreign exploitation. A painful memory that has helped to forge the proud chauvinistic nationalism of the present Chinese communist party. Like most history involving the West and its friends, those beyond its borders know it well, while those from within conveniently omit it from conscience. And so in 1914, not that long after the defeat of the Chinese natives defending their culture and homeland, those very Imperial militaries were now fighting among themselves while importing en masse Chinese labourers to help support the ever hungry war effort that demanded both men and material to maintain the slaughter of nations.
For Belgium, this small kingdom formed as a buffer between greater nations was in itself made up of differing peoples, many who even to this day seek independence from the capital Brussels. The passing through her sovereign lands by invading Germans was not merely an insult but it was a violation to its King and Western European decency. Indeed it perhaps was, and yet such indignation was not considered nor valued when it came to the many peoples suffering beneath the tyranny of the Belgian boot in Africa. King Leopold had in only recent memory condemned so many people of central Africa to misery and death. It is estimated that near ten million ‘Belgian Congolese’ were murdered by the Belgian Kingdom during this period, such exploitation and torment continued to occur during and after the Great War. Yet, poor neutral Belgium was the ever victim in the narrative of historical considerations. No European statesman would ever dare go to war for the peoples of the Congo, nor would they even dare address such genocidal conduct at the tables of European states. A generation later another European despot would murder over ten million supposedly inferior human beings and history has condemned him to the cauldrons of eternal pariah and yet as history continues to show black lives do not matter because mass genocide is completely allowable so long as it is against non-Europeans. Genocide however is still genocide just as evil is always evil.
The Kaisers Empire itself was in the throes of a late to the colonial game expansion across the globe and while its Empire was not limited to Africa, it was there that many suffered beneath a regime of genocidal oppression mixed with scientific curiosity. It was in German Namibia that under half a million Herero and Namaqua were exterminated with many of their remains being purchased by the leading academic institutions of the Civilised World. Renowned universities knowingly purchasing skeletons and body parts of the ‘savages’ of Africa to help further their scientific curiosities and perpetuate the recently popular eugenics theories which at the time helped to motivate many Nation states in their policies. From Progressives to inevitably the Nazis such educated elites and intellectuals would validate cruelty at the expense of backward inferiors in order to imagine the ideal society and validate it with science and academia. And yet, when in 1919 the ‘great powers’ sat the German leaders down to punish them, it was not for anything done beyond the European frontiers, it was simply because Germany dared to challenge other European empires in Europe as Napoleon had dared to do, one century prior. And that Germany had dared to be an empire to rival the British, not one West African victim saw any justice, nor has seen justice prevail instead reparations and moments of silence were reserved for the European fighting men, obedient to their national flags and ideals of empire.
For the French, the twentieth century’s eternal damsel in distress, a supposed Republic founded in a terrible and bloody revolution of splendid rhetoric and mechanised mass murder, the war was of desperate national defence. As the words liberty, equality and fraternity stained most pages and were set in stone across the Republic millions suffered as ‘inferior’ colonials from Algeria to Indochina. A Republic that was forged because of a Kings excess and an Imperial dynasties opulence now enjoyed its own empire of indulgent exploitation. And again, like neutral Belgium, as the German army marched into its sacred peasant lands it became riled up and outraged. And just like the Belgians, the nationalism and independence that united a Republic was denied during and well after this War for its many coloured and by their determinations, lesser colonial subjects. It would take nearly half a century and another World War before the French, even after their inability to defend their own nation, relinquished bloodily many of its colonial possessions to those native inhabitants who so desperately fought for home rule. Viva La Revolution! It seemed for the French only.
France enjoyed the depth of human resources that an Empire provided. West African blacks, North African Arabs and Orientals from Indochina all were pulled to the mother country in its defence. Filling in much needed gaps and providing the extensive labour for the logistics apparatus required for war fighting, the colonials were crucial in keeping France fighting. Alongside Chinese labourers the coloured colonials were deterred from enjoying the perks offered to the European men in uniform. It was also with some controversy that adversaries viewed the use of ‘inferiors’ and ‘coloureds’ as combat troops to be an insult and un-European. As though there was any honour in mass killing in general, it seemed that even murderous Governments had standards.
Splendid little Britain sat across the channel observing the coming storm of 1914 with wary eyes, it resented the German challenge to its naval supremacy and cast its loyalty to two former Imperial enemies, the French and Russians. Both of which it had fought brutal wars against during the nineteenth century, now it was a newcomer to the Triple Entente, a complex set of guarantees between nations with a common foe. Republic France united with Imperialist Russia together in check against a Constitutional Parliamentary Monarch of united Germany, again idealistic rhetoric and poetic prose about Governance meant little in pragmatic realities. In 1914 Britain and its Empire would honour its guarantee to France and enter the war. Britain and its elites had seen itself as the champion for the rule of law and liberty, only in name and self-perception as many beneath its rule realised. In this era, Britain was the greatest Empire on Earth, famously it was said that on every map, twenty-five percent of the World was stained pink for Empire. So Britain entered the war with a vast Empire of subjects and it did so because of a secret promise that it had made to France, a promise that many of its leadership made despite not informing much of the parliament and the British people. In a near empty session of parliament Britain declared war against Germany and went across the channel in defence of the independence of a small and vulnerable little nation. Meanwhile Ireland along with scores of other nations remained under British rule with no Expeditionary Force en route to liberate them from foreign occupation.
Twenty-five percent of the World, subjects to the crown, millions of differing peoples and cultures subject to its arbitrary rule and its class society. While Australia, New Zealand and Canada were Anglo dominated dominions much of the Empire was made up of ‘coloured’ subjects and thus considered for every practical example as inferior to British stock. What they were however superior as were as labourers, fodder for war and tax cows for a hungry commerce driven Imperial crown of mercantilism. While entire subcontinents were considered jewels in an Imperial Crown, Anglophiles to this day as they often did then, look back at Empire with fondness and praise for the many supposed virtues that it brought with it. This rule was of great benefit to all of the peoples of these distant and inferior lands because with British rule such splendid concepts such as individualism and rule of law were introduced. Hallmarks of Western Civilisation, hyperbole and rhetoric, in practice as is always the case such splendid ideological virtues were seldom if at all observed, least of all during war time. And this supposed liberal individualism would mean nothing when several decades later socialism riddled England like a cancer while what remained of its Empire crumbled away around the sick polluted forever winter burdened nation of Europe. But its defenders shall always fantasise about its unpractised classical liberalism and its role in bringing liberty to the World.
As Britain sent its Expeditionary force over to Flanders and the many dominions and colonies declared war on Germany, it was assumed and often proclaimed that Britain and the British people were fighting a war for freedom. Again this illusion defied the practices of such empires and hypocrisy of becoming so warlike over Europeans suffering beneath foreign aggression, while empires burgeoned abroad over non-European subjects. For those many peoples across the World that suffered beneath the British yolk, they were invited to join in Empires mighty defence of other European colonial powers. While some, as was the case for the Indians promises of autonomy was being suggested as thousands of soldiers from the subcontinent died or suffered and as autonomy and home rule was being promised, the Irish attempted a desperate uprising in order to gain their own freedom. But Britain needed to intervene to save neutral Belgium and her French allies, unlike Germany who showed restraint during Britain’s war on the Zulus, Boers and Berbers in her many Imperial stomps of dominance across the globe, heroic Britain would thwart German imperialism.
As many saw the Zeppelin raids as both terrifying and harbingers of a future of aerial mass killing, their raids on England were minuscule and more psychological. As the Paris gun lobbed its mighty shells towards French cities it did this with propaganda and terror in mind. It was however the effective and relentless blockade by the Royal Navy of Germany that wrought the most civilian deaths. The mass starvation of millions of civilians done with callous calculation against an entire people young and old, killing close to a million. As later embargoes would show it was done not against the military or political leaders of a nation but it’s civil populace. And yet despite the sacrifices and suffering experienced at home by the allies, it was nothing near those felt by the Germans trapped by this blockade. While poems and lyrics of splendid prose would praise the gallantry of sailor and statesman alike, none would dare narrate the misery felt by the hungry children of Germany who died thanks to these efforts blocking food and medicine from arriving on German shores. Much has been said about the U-boar scourge, a dire reaction of near impotence in comparison to the British blockade of Germany. After 1916’s battle in the Jutland Sea, the Royal Navy supremacy was such that it starved an entire nation and kept the German surface fleet essentially in port.
The Ottoman Empire, that ancient Oriental scourge that ruled over what was once the Eastern Roman Empire was supposed to be a backwards and weak player in the region. A sometimes friend in recent times to Britain and France when it came to their Great Game against the Russians, found itself now allied with Germany. The Young Turks a new reformer group of nationalists that sought to change the old empire with a powerful and proud modern nationalism, were determined to ready Turkey for the new century. Having fought very recently two wars in the Balkans the Turks slowly turned their machinations of murder upon their own subjects. It was in 1915, just a day before the Allied landings at what was to become singularly known as ANZAC cove, that the Armenian genocide had commenced. A mass extermination of Christians from the central Asian region done in such plain sight that invoked no condemnation nor desire for vindication on the part of the wider world. A future mass killer would look to this genocide and the 1930s Holodomor as both validation that the wider world would never care and as a perverse inspiration.
The brave Allies at Gallipoli did not invade to help save these dying Armenians, instead they sought to link up and relieve their Imperial Russian allies, themselves the oppressors of people. And at the wars end, after nearly two million Armenians had been slaughtered the Young Turks and its rulers faced no trial or hangman’s rope. Instead they became modern inspirations and partners of neutrality as their new country of Turkey flourished while France and England consumed the rest of the old Ottoman empire. The vanquished genocidal Turkish government was never once queried regarding the genocide, it was not even on the agenda at wars end and even in 1923 when Turkey finally signed a statement it ignored genocide. Despite the pretty speeches of Woodrow Wilson and the Allied rulers, Armenian bones crumbled to dust and found no justice, even to this day. Much to the eternal shame of the World and its sacred institutions.
Other interested participants the Japanese, Bulgarians, Italians, Romanians and Serbians fought with regional and national self interest in mind, desires to secure border regions or have footholds on foreign soils were guaranteed by the major belligerents. This in turn led to wider problems as after the war promises to so many concerned parties could not be honoured. Some claimants were all but ignored while others benefited immensely, for the Japanese and Italians both had committed a considerable amount and contributed to the Allied war efforts and yet both had nationalistic and ultimately fascist elements that rose to prominence based upon the sense of disregard that both nations attained at wars end. Leading to more aggressive and self-determined empires in waiting with wider regional designs of their own. They became allies in waiting for a truly wronged and embittered Germany, ripe for its own nationalistic socialist despot to seize upon the energy of discontent.
For the United States myths are taught about the isolation experienced by this bright and shining example of freedom on the hill. As though tumultuous events apparently lead the US reluctantly into a war. As though its entire history had been one of peaceful live and let live and not of perverse self-denied imperialism. Somehow the entire nineteenth century of continental aggressive domination against Mexico, England in its other American colony, the native peoples and its own brothers was of no example of the blood lust exhibited by the American people and its governments. The recent colonial grabs of Hawaii and then the Spanish colonies won in its war against the crippled old Imperio Español placed the United States among the ranks of imperial players. As the United States brokered a peace between Japan and Russia in 1905, a war to determine who could possess Korea, the US was fighting a direct and volatile insurgency against the people of the Philippines while also playing favourites in Mexico. With murderous brutality foreshadowing United States conduct to come in subsequent counter insurgent conflicts the war in the Philippines for America represented a putrid example of ‘white man’s burden’ and the obligations of empire.
While pretending to be a neutral the US began to actively support one side of the European war, as it would go on to do in the Second World War. Loans and materials crossed the Atlantic to serve one side of the conflict, as Anglophiles triumphed, any news from the German perspective failed to reach American eyes and ears. It defied most protocols of warfare and feigned indignation as it proclaimed that its citizens must not be harmed should they willingly enter warzones. And as the many victims of the German U-boot drowned beneath the cold Atlantic waves while travelling aboard the Lusitania, they sank with tonnes of ammunition and explosives destined for Britain. Despite the German government taking out ads in American papers to warn that the Lusitania may be sunk and despite the Wilson administration stopping all but one paper from printing such forewarnings, the Lusitania was eventually sunk after its lone escort abandoned it on its most dangerous part of its Atlantic crossing. For President Wilson a champion of public service segregation, the Wars end promised an era of peace where peoples could find their own determination, the sinking of this vessel was to be a trump card in entry to a war he had campaigned to avoid. His rhetoric and speeches about safeguarding democracy and self-determination sounded splendid, provided that those people were former subjects of the defeated. Never once was it considered nor entertained that US subjects in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii or the Philippines could go down a path of autonomy.
When the Americans arrived ill prepared and inexperienced they met a veteran enemy unimpressed with the bravery and swagger of the new combatants and instead these non-Europeans fought as the European armies had in 1914, wastefully dogmatic. As the Doughboys continued to slog their way through the mud of France to serve alongside the weary armies of those nations who had been fighting to a grinding bloody attrition, the World experienced the exceptionalism of the centuries new saviour. The democracy that would go on to ‘save’ the World over and over again as it so saw and depicted itself despite its warring tendencies. But in late 1917, Uncle Sam was a welcome reprieve for the allies.
A segregated army landed in a continent that lusted for war, a continent that not only killed for nationalism but religion, whether interdenominational or its Crusades against Jew, Muslim and Byzantine. It was a continent obsessed with difference and its supposed superiority of Western civilisation. Pogroms, genocides, slavery, mercantilism, colonialism and now World War were the truths of Western and European civilisation, what lay beneath the beautiful literature and inspiring prose that was seldom, but almost NEVER realised. The Americans belonged among these colonial powers, despite the self-image held by the Americans of themselves their history had been one of such violent conquest and racist maliciousness. And now as it treated its African American soldiers and Chinese labourers with such progressive malice, it fought for the apparent freedom of democracy and the splendid virtues of Christendom and self-governance. Meanwhile anti-government dissenters along with war protesters sat in prison, that piece of paper that Americans lust over doing very little to save and protect their freedom and beyond the bars of the political prisoners swung the lifeless bodies of those untried coloureds, lynched and murdered by righteous and democratic mobs. God Bless America.
As the Americans landed, the Russians had bowed out of the war. The Tsar and his sick and brutal empire had been toppled by revolution after revolution, eventually it was the more brutal and oppressive Bolsheviks who took power. Three years earlier however Russia was a mighty and old Imperial monarchy, backwards and eastern on the doorstep of Europe. An energy towards industrialisation spread through Russia as it was late to the revolution in such mechanisation. It had recently ended feudalism but most of its citizenry were still essentially serfs. This difference between the aristocracy that ruled and the peasants that suffered was none greater than what was experienced in Russia. These conditions combined with the coming war would provide a perfect cauldron for noble revolution of ideals but near always a more successful brutally savage one. Less than a decade earlier Russia suffered an embarrassing defeat against the Japanese. Asians had defeated a European people – the shame. Russia’s rulers now sought to redeem itself and the events in Sarajevo presented a moment of strength, where Slav could stand by Slav as the small nation of Serbia defied the Hapsburg Imperium of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Hapsburgs were perhaps the most famous family in all of Europe, the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. An Empire that clutched across most of central Europe like a gloved hand, but beneath that formidable looking glove was a withered and decayed flesh and bone weak and ready to be pried away by the many independent peoples that lay beneath its grip. It was an empire of many languages, religions and cultures one that tore at a central bureaucracy’s sense of order. The Austro-Hungarians allies to Germany had been the bulwark against Eastern aggression in the form of both Turk and Slavs. It was now in 1914 however that the fates would see the Hapsburg dynasty on the side of the Ottomans.
Though the war was fought across the globe with the Japanese taking the German colony in China of Tsingtao, British Imperial forces fighting Germans in their African colonies, naval engagements far down along the coast of South America, Australian soldiers engaging Germans in New Guinea and the return of Anglo-Franco crusaders to the Holy land in several centuries it was one fought with solely European interests in mind. As Bedouin Arabs fought the Ottoman it was a European who became so celebrated, as Lawrence of Arabia is recalled with Hollywood like iconography despite the many others who fought in those hot desert sands. It is safe to assume that the unknown soldier that is worshipped in national memorials across the globe is most surely of European stock and represents the most perfect ideals always imagined though seldom ever realised.
What was the immediate legacy of this War to End all Wars? Besides the end of dynasties and empires, the birth of new nations such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Estonia some of which were to become consumed by the recently established USSR. A horrible influenza was soon to spread across Europe and follow its soldiers back home to wreak havoc and killing more in their beds than bullets on the battlefield. An Internationalised civil war fought between ‘red’ and ‘white’ Russians in the new communist empire of the USSR. Wars of expansion and suppression were to flicker in soon to be created Iraq as Kurdish peoples were bombed with gas from the RAF high above, Japanese armies began to venture into China, fascist Italy found its new territories of desert in Africa, Poland and Russia fighting a large scale war to a subtle civil war inside the borders of defeated Germany. All inside of a decade after the wars end. A war to end all wars indeed.
The League of Nations and its ineffective hypocrisy did as the United Nations does to this day, consume resources, serve its own self-interest and work on the side of some nations while condemning others for doing just as others do. The United States supposedly an isolationist, flexed its muscles citing its Monroe doctrine as it violently manipulated affairs in South America, ruled over its dominion, actively supported the Nationalist Chinese against Japan, imposed embargoes, played favourites in foreign conflicts and sent volunteers to fight in the bloody Spanish civil war. All the while knowingly supporting Stalinist Russia with aid, trade and machinery as both collectivist regimes pushed forward their New Deals and Five Year Plans. Meanwhile millions of Ukrainians died in the terrible Holodomor as tonnes of oranges rotted in American fields and thousands starved in all segregated American streets, scapegoats were never far for either regime. And as Hitler emerged and rose to prominence doing what every other aggressive regime was and had done in their own way, the arrogance of US self-interest saw that mild appeasement on their and Prime Minister Chamberlains part was in some way responsible for the inevitability of the coming war. Not that their precious Woodrow Wilson and his regimes entry into war in 1917 and the eventual reshaping by the victors in 1919 of the World thereafter was somehow responsible for this impending storm of global calamity. No, apparently appeasing in part one of the many tyrants born and raised from the outcomes of World War One was the causation of the European war of 1939.
As the victors stood over the weakened losers in Versailles and dictated to them conditions that would lead to the impending violence of another and far worse World War, other less obvious repercussions were being forged. With the creation of faux kingdoms and new nations the World entered a new age, an era which in this era one hundred years later now sees the grim flickering of animosity, resentment and consequence. So many destinies coerced and crushed, determined by artificial entities so Imperial and self-assured in their supremacy. And so we have the rise of ISIS-Dahesh and so many other groups of lesser note fighting with perverted violence born out of very real injustices. Sykes-Picot no more is the true yearning for many and yet just as those same empires, one hundred years earlier carved up other people’s deserts with such disregard so too do they to this day blast it with as little concern or care for another generations lament.
The Great War like all wars was one of victor’s justice, it was a violent struggle with no singular agenda. All sides and players had their own desires and wishes that either shrank or expanded with the turn of each battle. Proud rulers determined to hold on to the bitter end with little care for the suffering of those that they ruled is and was always a prominent feature whether an autocratic monarchy or a ‘democratic republic’, in the end in war it matters little what the paper legalese of governance supposedly is. The practice is always the same, repression at home, oppression abroad and murder endless murder. All done for so many very real and un-noble reasons, sold under the guise of seemingly ideologically desperate ones. No army could march if they knew the truth and no people would suffer if they understood the facts and yet it is with cooperative rule that so many continue to perpetuate the myths and hypocrisy of war. That somehow truth and facts should desecrate the graves of those that served and fought, that somehow a conversation about such grand incidents would snuff the flame of the unknown soldier. And yet, the candleless unmarked graves of so many unknown civilians remain rotten and forgotten so long as generations continue to bow down to myths and governance that continue to bury both truth and human beings.
It does no good to imagine a world without the Great War, it is an impossibility and it allows the imagination to meander to a place of possibility and unrealities. But, one can be certain that without the war humanity would still be what it was – a destructive force with a tendency for rule and imperialism, especially when governance and nationalism consumes great swathes of people. It would also be a place where no infections of national socialism, Italian fascism, Japanese militantism, Bolshevisms or wide spread communism in general would have a global host in which to spread. It would also be void of the direct sufferings of the 1918-19 influenza, the dead and starving of war, impositions of government oppression brought on by war to the machinations of wider central banks and war fighting abilities of the many nations involved. It certainly would not have led to World War Two let alone the cold war and its many terrible proxy wars. For all its romantic greatness this war of 1914-1918 brought so much misery and suffering and only glory for those who profited from its savagery or those seeking to romance it from beyond the moments of terror.
The world would still be ruled by Imperial monarchies, colonials would still suffer before their supposed superiors, nations would rise and fall, men and machine would still meet in conflict and governments would still apply pressure on those individuals beneath its rule. It would not be a utopia that is most certain but it would be a place less dystopic, a place where the world could perhaps find itself in a freer and more organic state of interaction over time as peace and trade flourished. But alas that is the fanciful meanderings of what ifs and counter factual, it is however as romantic as supposing that something so very horrific and terrible was anything other than wastefully murderous. So when it was decided that the guns would symbolically fall silent on the 11th of the 11th 1918, men still died in the hours leading up to this monumental hour. Their death a waste and futile for the armistice had been decided in advance, it symbolised just another example of the illusions and despicable nature of the great men of history and those that cherish symbolic dates and gestures despite bloody truths.
We can never hope to learn from history so long as we continue to delude ourselves with the obedience of nationalism and tribalism. The inability to look back into our own pasts and to acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice of so many, but also the horrors and maliciousness of many more. To realise that despite so much loss and ongoing torment, that the reasons for war and conduct were seldom, if at all, done with any virtue in mind or ever achieved any noble end and instead would only go on to make the World a far worse place. Worse not just for those that lost and served but for those yet to be born. It is important that such terrific and grand events such as World War One are valued for what they are, enormous tragedies. So long as poems, songs and words float high above so many unmarked graves, dust and ash shall too mingle with pretty but empty words because in the end human beings were murdered for such illusory and empty ideals that we seem to cherish even to this day.
Half Caged but never without a fight