WWI: An almost needless war that we hardly remember and will unlikely repeat

Graves at Sanctuary Wood Military Cemetery in Ypres, Belgium.
Graves at Sanctuary Wood Military Cemetery in Ypres, Belgium.

The Great War. The War to End All Wars. Not ... and not.

Now that all who managed its politics and all that fought its battles are dead, we are left to slog through “What did it mean?” aftermath. Nobody is alive to gainsay from direct, personal experience these weighty pontifications.

So upon the centennial of its inception, historians have spewed forth a library of thick tomes to burnish/make reputations. And the media, facing a summer dearth of activity but still needing to fill column inches/air time, have sought clever devices to engage the public.

But enough already. The war was terrible, but obligatory. It means less today than viewer-with-alarm hypothesize and even less in the United States than Canada.

World War I may have begun as a war of choice, but quickly morphed into a war of necessity.

[ David Kilgour: WWI was an important event in Canadian and European history ]

Perhaps the Austrians could have said “tish tish” when a Serbian nationalist gunned down their heir apparent. Perhaps the Kaiser could have said, “You’re on your own” to Franz Joseph. Perhaps Czar Nicholas could have declined to back the Serbs, saying in effect, “You deserve it for harbouring terrorists.” Or the French could have declined to support the Russians. Or the Germans could have decided just to fight Russians and not attack the French/Belgians. Or the British could have concluded the agreement to support Belgium was indeed a “scrap of paper” and let the French and Germans fight it out – presumably to a draw. With those alternative histories, no Canadian or United States intervention and, perhaps, no collapse of the Russian, Turkish, German, and Austrian monarchies. Perhaps no Holocaust and/or no Israel. And hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lived without premature termination.

But such was not the case and such alternative histories can be left to science fiction authors.

To borrow a descriptive phrase, Europe was a collection of swords piled like jackstraws. Every nation was prepared for war; every nation expected war as part of its political dynamic. Europe believed that it was safe for another short, neat conflict equivalent to recent Balkan wars which, in the eyes of some, had resulted in Serbia getting too big for its britches. Thus a little comedownance would be appropriate, and Austria’s assassinated archduke provided justifiable rationale for delivering a salutatory spanking.

But almost instantly, driven by competing reserve call-ups and relentless railroad timetables, it spiralled far beyond expectation or control. Thus Britain was faced with the potential of a German-dominated Europe and London had struggled for centuries to prevent any nation dominating Europe.

And if Britain went to war, so did the rest of the Empire, which was far more coherently “British” than it would be subsequently. Indeed, King George V was as much monarch in Manitoba as he was in Manchester.

So what a 21st century observer may see as “choice” for Ottawa, in political-sociological reality wasn’t. (Except of course in Quebec, where Francophones had little desire to die for any British monarch.)

The war forever shattered mindless faith in professional military competence. Too many died stupidly for a few acres of ground; such blithe acceptance by soldiers and civilians is inconceivable today.

Impact on Canada. Historians largely conclude that Canada's WWI participation was a “coming of age” experience. Canadian military leadership was parsimonious with soldiers’ lives (at least in comparison with French/British/German commanders), and the startling victory at Vimy Ridge still evinces well-deserved pride. It is, however, worthy of sardonic note that in 2002 then-Canadian Defence Minister, John McCallum, confused Vimy with “Vichy” (German-controlled WWII France). “Up yours,” the Vimy dead might sigh.

Impact on USA. Less. We came late to the war (and suffered fewer casualties); the rather bombastic announcement by General Pershing (“Lafayette, we are here”) and subsequent rhetoric that we had won the war for the Allies proved without lasting domestic resonance. Pershing, however, remains modestly honored: the Army band is “Pershing’s Own” and Pershing is interred in Arlington Cemetery beneath the modest monument of a simple soldier.

And Lessons Learned?

First, the war forever shattered mindless faith in professional military competence. Too many died stupidly for a few acres of ground; such blithe acceptance by soldiers and civilians is inconceivable today.

Second, treaties and alliances are mutable. In the nuclear age, it is hard to believe any nation will sacrifice itself for another. NATO’s one-for-all, all-for-one Article V is closer to pious hypothesis than proven axiom.

Finally, history isn’t on the verge of repetition. A murdered national leader won’t unleash nuclear Armageddon. The plethora of conflicts now in play are essentially controlled, regional spitting matches. Bloody and brutal but limited. We can sleep peacefully; no “guns of August” this year.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.