A century since the end of World War I, mankind has not ceased to fight. Why haven’t we learned our lesson?
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More than 14,000 white crosses stud a densely wooded, verdant park in northeastern France. Each headstone has a name, military rank, and date of death engraved on it.
There are too many names to recount: Even just spending 30 seconds at each stone would take a visitor six days straight to visit them all.
But simply looking across the aligned rows, one can begin to visualize the scale of death that occurred in the area 100 years ago.
Thousands were shredded by machine gun bullets, obliterated by artillery shells, burnt up by flamethrowers, suffocated in chlorine or mustard gas. Many others rotted from rampant disease in the mud-filled trenches, some before they ever got to see a battle.
The cemetery commemorates American soldiers lost in the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918. It was the nation’s deadliest battle in its history, with 26,000 soldiers killed, tens of thousands wounded and more ammunition fired during the two-month engagement than in the Civil War.
During seven weeks of combat, 1.2 million American troops led by General John J. Pershing fought to advance on the entrenched positions held by about 450,000 Germans in the Verdun region. The offensive was one of several simultaneous Allied attacks that brought World War I which started in 1914 to an end, leading the Germans to retreat and sign the armistice on November 11. By then, more than 110,000 Americans had been killed after mere months of combat.
The surviving doughboys—the informal term for U.S. Army or Marines infantrymen—had to carry emotional and mental turmoil for the rest of their lives. Most struggled to reintegrate into society. The question that loomed in soldiers’ minds: Where do we go from here?
In the 1920s, the American Legion reported that two veterans committed suicide each day to escape the effects of post-traumatic stress and shell-shock.
But Americans—even today—scarcely comprehend how the war affected Europe.
The 110,000 Americans lost pales in comparison to Europe’s war dead: 9.5 million. More than half of them have no known graves—their bodies vanished either from artillery blasts or being buried alive in mud.
Another 21 million soldiers returned to their families in Germany, Britain, Russia, France or elsewhere mutilated—blinded or missing toes, fingers, legs, arms and even faces.
It was the greatest slaughter the continent had experienced. A generation forever scarred because of the whims of kaisers, kings and czars.
Life on the continent is still not the same. “The contrast between American and European perceptions of the world order in the 20th and 21st centuries is incomprehensible without considering the catastrophe of 1914-1918,” The Atlantic reported. “Ever since, Europe has felt an underlying pessimism, a sense of danger and disorder that the United States hasn’t shared. Americans have continued to believe that progress is built into history. Most Europeans, other than Marxists, dropped this notion once the Great War began.”
A new world emerged on November 11. German leaders—realizing defeat was imminent—met with French and British personnel in a railroad car parked near the frontline in France. It was agreed that hostilities would end at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
When the moment came, millions of shell-shocked troops waiting in trenches experienced a range of emotions—from relief to bitterness. All experienced the awkwardness of sudden silence.
Feldwebel Georg Bucher, a German soldier waiting in a dugout for the barrage to end, wrote about his experience. “The minutes seemed an eternity,” Newsweek quoted him. “I raised my head and listened, though I could feel far more distinctly than my ears could tell me that the shellfire was decreasing like rain easing off. The din became less and less violent, then it ceased—ceased altogether over our sector…”
“Then there was a great silence. We stood motionless, gazing at the shell smoke which drifted sluggishly across no man’s land…The hour had come. I turned round: ‘Armistice!’”
In the great silence, soldiers and citizens both began to deal with a different kind of bombardment in their minds as they questioned: What did we fight for?
How did a petty battle between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, started when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a 19-year-old Bosnian peasant, draw in the world’s greatest powers?
And why couldn’t those in absolute authority prevent it from happening? After all, Britain’s King George, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Russia’s Czar Nicholas II were connected by a common grandmother: Queen Victoria of Great Britain.
Were millions sacrificed just to protect royal bloodlines and politicians safely kept behind closed doors?
The final six hours of the war served as a microcosm of the war’s futile bloodshed: “Out of 16 commanders of US divisions who received early-morning news of the armistice, seven chose to stop fighting,” The Independent reported. “But nine pressed on through blood, right down to the wire.
“The crossing of the Meuse alone that morning cost the Americans 1,130 casualties.” It continued: “On that ultimate morning, the Western Front witnessed 10,944 casualties, with 2,738 deaths. Astonishingly, that casualties total exceeds Allied losses on D-Day.”
It was this kind of senseless blood-shedding that resulted in the Great War’s nickname, “The war to end war,” which originated from British author H.G. Wells’ book The War that Will End War.
Idealists at the time felt the unprecedented horrors of the first world war would persuade mankind to abandon armed conflict altogether.
Instead, it served as the very catalyst for even greater turmoil and conflict a mere generation later.
At the very outbreak of the war, Italy’s political left split into antiwar socialists and pro-war nationalists including Benito Mussolini. He would give rise to fascist Italy.
Russia dropped out of the war in 1917 as the Bolshevik Revolution ousted czarist authority and established the Marxist-Leninist Soviet Union.
And Adolf Hitler, a German dispatch runner on the Western Front who expressed frustration at Germany’s surrender, rose to lead the nation and pull the world’s powers into an even bloodier war.
Beyond sowing the seeds to the next great conflict, even much of today’s instability stems from the armistice.
The volatile Middle East, a powder keg for extremism and terrorism, is one example.
The Atlantic explained: “In 1915, the British high commissioner in Egypt promised the keeper of the holy sites in Mecca independence for Arabs in return for their participation in fighting the Ottoman empire. Two years later, Britain’s Balfour Declaration promised Zionists the opposite: a Jewish homeland in Palestine. And these incompatible promises were complicated even more by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, which divided the post-Ottoman Middle East between French and British spheres of influence and drew arbitrary borders—in Iraq, for instance—that have caused instability and conflict ever since.”
In addition, the Great War led to America’s conflicts in the Far East.
“The extent to which the war fueled the continuing hostility between China and Japan is rarely recognized,” The Atlantic continued. “The problem arose from the Treaty of Versailles. Both nations, traditionally rivals, were among the victorious delegations. China, however, was the weaker power, plagued by internal strife after its 1911 revolution. Japan had helped the Allies during the war, by convoying Australia’s and New Zealand’s troops across the Indian Ocean and by sending naval cruisers to protect the west coast of Canada. At Versailles, Japan tried to exploit its newly acquired leverage, proposing that the charter of the League of Nations include a commitment to racial equality. President Wilson, as a southern-born politician, knew that any such language would ensure the treaty’s defeat in the U.S. Senate. To prevent the Japanese from walking out of the peace negotiations once their request was turned down, the leaders of Britain, France, and the United States backed Japan’s proposal to grant it temporary control—until 1922, as it turned out—of the Chinese of Shandong, south of Beijing, which the Germans had controlled during the war.”
Not only did this stoke Japanese naval power and aggression leading to its involvement in the second world war, the Chinese responded in protest by forming the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement, from which came China’s Communist Party. The U.S. has had tense diplomatic relations with Communist China ever since.
New Kind of Battle
Undoubtedly the Great War created more war. But it also changed the nature of war itself.
For one, it was the first modern war in which the distinction between civilian and military targets was blurred.
The “Rape of Belgium” in 1914 set the tone for this new kind of conflict. German forces killed 6,000 Belgian civilians, destroyed 25,000 homes, and caused another 17,700 to die from deportation or imprisonment—despite Belgium’s neutrality status.
Such an event was a far-cry from Napoleonic era war-watching—when non-combatants could safely enjoy a picnic while observing the calculated movements of field armies firing volleys at each other.
In addition, internment camps cropped up to house any ethnicity of people suspected of disloyalty. The 20th century’s first genocide occurred in the Ottoman Empire—Turkey’s predecessor—which systematically exterminated up to 1.5 million Armenians.
The war also eliminated any notion of safety behind the frontlines. Artillery and airplanes brought the war to cities and towns far beyond the trenches. Naval blockades brought entire nations to their knees through famine and widespread disease such as the Spanish influenza—which killed as many as 100 million across the globe between 1917 and 1918.
By the war’s end, seven million bystanders lost their lives—more than any other single conflict by that time. And since WWI, civilian casualties have been an inseparable statistic from war: 10-25 million Chinese civilians killed during Japan’s assault on China before the second world war, seven million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, 500,000 German citizens lost from U.S. day and British night bombing raids over Dresden, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Berlin and so forth, and hundreds of thousands of Japanese completely vaporized in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Historians generally label WWI as the first total war, in which entire nations’ populations and resources—not just their militaries—are involved in the effort.
Most major conflicts of the 20th century have followed this example. Britannica detailed just a few: “During the Vietnam War (1954–75), the communist leadership of North Vietnam regarded the conflict as one of total war and acted accordingly. The Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), though fought with limited resources in that neither side had a large industrial base or much airpower, was very close to a total war for both belligerents.”
Both of these conflicts resulted in civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands. Compare that to America’s worst conflict fought on its own soil—the Civil War—in which 50,000 civilians died.
A reason for the excessive loss of life in total war is a focus on developing more destructive weapons.
In the first world war, “Terrorizing the ground, machine guns had a firepower that equaled 80 rifles,” National Geographic reported. “Advances in artillery rained down explosives on soldiers in the trenches. Armored cars and tanks first rolled their way into battle in World War I. Chemical warfare, in the form of chlorine, mustard gas, and phosgene, poisoned hundreds of thousands of soldiers.”
“Advances in technology led to battles taking place almost anywhere on Earth. Devastation threatened from above and below, with dirigibles prowling the skies and submarines prowling the seas. Observation balloons were used for gathering intelligence, and zeppelins were used in bombing raids. World War I was the first major war to be fought in the air; British, French, and German flying aces engaged in famous dogfights over Europe. In the seas, Germans held the advantage: Their U-boats were state of the art, a submarine more advanced than any other nation’s. A U-boat could carry 35 men and 12 torpedoes and travel underwater for two hours at a time.”
Such developments were intended to shock enemies into submission, more quickly bring an end to battle, and subsequently reduce the need to waste more lives.
Yet it wrought more casualties and damage. By 1918, one in every four shells fired on the western front contained poison gas. Around 124,000 tons of chemical agents were used.
“Many survivors suffered from lung and respiratory problems for the rest of their lives. Some were left permanently blind,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
“After the war, horror over the weapons’ impact resulted in the 1925 Geneva Protocol ban.” Nevertheless, “The U.S. and the Soviets developed large stockpiles of weapons during the Cold War. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used mustard and nerve gases, first against Iran, then against Iraq’s own Kurdish minority in 1988.
“The effects of World War I’s gas attacks still resonate. When Syrian forces were accused of using chemical weapons in August 2013 against antigovernment strongholds outside Damascus, the U.S. threatened military force against the Assad regime for the first time in Syria’s bloody civil war.”
“Even a century after Ypres, armed conflicts continue to spur technological advances,” Spiegel Online reported. “Wherever wars are fought, money flows into military innovations. The United States’ War on Terror, for example, resulted in the addition of billions to the defense budget and also led to the development of killer drones and vastly complex surveillance technologies.”
A tragedy of history is that technological advances seem to only spur a race between opponents for greater destructive powers.
“The dead were and are not,” historian G.M. Trevelyan wrote in his autobiography. “Their place knows them no more and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them.”
All those who experienced World War I are no longer with us. But the reminders of it are plain.
In France and Belgium, civilians are still dying from war munitions. Farmers and shell clearers yield what they call the “Iron harvest”—unexploded ordnance, shrapnel, bullets and barbed wire.
Because about one in three shells fired during the war did not detonate, more than 630 demineurs (French for de-miners) have died from handling unexploded munitions since 1945. More than 200 civilians died from stumbling upon them just around Ypres, Belgium. The Securite Civile agency reports that no less than 700 more years are needed to completely clean the “red zone”—an area deemed after the war to be too damaged to be inhabited by humans.
Britain is still grappling to answer why it ever participated in the war. “The sense that the war was futile and unnecessary still hangs over a lot of discussion in Britain,” Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at King’s College, London, told The New York Times.
In addition, the UK just finished paying off its WWI bonds to the United States in 2015. Germany, too, had not finished paying off its war debts and reparations until 2010—two years after the last surviving German WWI veteran died at age 107.
The pattern is clear. Man has not learned the lesson: war does not solve problems—rather it ensures future generations are embroiled in more problems and more war.
Gas weapons are still used in Syria. Governments and extremist groups raise armies to fight over ideologies. Civilians are targeted. Overcharged nationalistic sentiments prolong civil wars and revolutions such as the ones in Ukraine or Yemen. Nations arm themselves to the point of mutually assured destruction.
And through each bloody engagement, the cries to bring an end to war become louder. But no solution, whether restraint and appeasement or meeting a threat head on, seems to stop it.
Why is the genius of human beings—capable of producing nuclear weapons that can destroy the world many times over—utterly incapable of stopping violence?
A rarely quoted passage in scripture gives a summary of human behavior throughout the ages: “Their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known” (Rom. 3:15-17).
Man does not know the way—the path or means—to peace.
This is a depressing statement. No matter how many lives are lost, no matter how many wars are fought, man is doomed to repeat history. He cannot progress to break the pattern.
David C. Pack’s book Why Man Cannot Solve His Problems more clearly details the ultimate reason man cannot yet know the way to peace.
However, rest assured. It is not all bad news. The reason we cannot find solutions to our greatest problems is actually a key to understanding how they will eventually be solved.
Read more at rcg.org/uun. Do not miss out on the life-changing lessons of the past.