Archive for the ‘World War I’ Category

To End All Wars

No Beach Reading Here

Douglas Haig - that’s him done up to his bemedalled best – has become the most controversial general of the Great War. His career, including command of the British Army in France during much of the First World War, earned him a state funeral upon his death in 1928. But history has a way of re-evaluating reputations and Haig has now become a subject of much scholarship and critical analysis.

On his orders 60,000 British troops became casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. That is a sentence difficult to write let alone begin to comprehend. With the British and French facing the Germans across a no man’s land of barbed wire and muddy trenches, the war became a contest in mass murder. To some critics, Haig, a self-assured, duplicitous Scotsman – his family name still marks the bottles of a brand of Scotch whiskey – was the Murderer-in-Chief, or at the time simply “Butcher Haig.”

Haig replaced his one-time boss, Field Marshall John French, as commander of British forces in France early in the war. French was inept and out of his depth in thinking a new type of war featuring the machine gun could be won with heroic cavalry charges. Haig and French playing starring roles in a marvelous new book – To End All Wars - that is both a history of the defining event of the 20th Century and a chilling reminder that those who opposed the war may really have history on their side.

The book by Adam Hochschild is gripping history that captures the many absurdities of the war that did not end all wars, while focusing on those dissenters, like Bertrand Russell, who, at considerable risk to position and reputation, stood against the madness. Hochschild, as reviewer Jonathan F. Vance notes, also has a telling eye for the story within the story.

“One such story concerns Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton,” Vance wrote in the Globe and Mail, “who was beginning his epic journey to the South Pole when the war broke out. He offered to return to England and put his men and ship at the service of King and Empire, but the British government urged him to carry on. In 1916, Shackleton emerged from the polar wastes after a harrowing 18-month journey that saw his ship crushed by pack ice. His first question upon arriving at a Norwegian whaling station was, ‘When was the war over?’ The startled response: ‘The War is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.’”

The madness is fully captured in the story of the British Field Marshall Jack French and his sister Charlotte Despard. She was one of the great suffrage leaders of Britain and also one of the foremost opponents of the war that her brother was prosecuting across the English Channel. Charlotte led public protests in England against the war, while her brother led a whole generation to slaughter.

Above all Hochschild’s superb new book reminds us – again – that there is no such thing as a neat, tidy, quick war. Once begun, World War I spun wildly out of control beyond the worst nightmares 0f any of those, including the German Kaiser, the Russian Czar and the leaders of the British Empire, who thought the war, sparked by a political assassination in the Balkans in the summer of 1914, could be over by Christmas. It was over by Christmas, but the year was 1918 and millions were dead, the map of Europe and the Middle East remade and the world charged forever.

To End All Wars certainly isn’t light, summer beach reading, but rather is a reminder that, when it comes to war, we seem to keep making monumental miscalculations and tragic mistakes over and over again. It is likely the best book on the Great War you will ever read.

 

The Great War

It Didn’t End Anything…

The “war to end all wars” didn’t.

In fact the case can be persuasively made that what before World War II was commonly called “the great war” really began a vicious spiral of nearly continuous war, killing and destruction that made the 20th Century the most violent century.

I got to thinking about this after reading a moving tribute in the Washington Post this week to the last American veteran of the great war, Frank Woodruff Buckles. Buckles died recently at the ripe old age of 110. What things he saw in his long life.

Paul Duggan’s Post story made the point that Buckles, a West Virginia boy, was among the nearly 5 million Americans who were in uniform in 1917 and 1918. More than 116,000 of them died. Frank was the last one; a link in a now broken chain back to a time when there was no GI Bill, virtually no health care for returning doughboys and little acknowledgment from either the government or the public.

By 1930 the war was thought by many in the United States to have been a great mistake, a fight not ours that had scarred – and scared – a generation. Isolationism dominated American foreign policy and the U.S. Senate even investigated the “merchants of death,” who many thought had profited from the wartime sale of American munitions.

Today, its the World War II “greatest generation” that gets the attention, but it was the war Frank Buckles and his generation fought that really defined the 20th Century. The war now mostly relegated to the dusty back shelf of American history still echoes down to us today in so many ways.

The modern map of Europe and the Middle East is the result of that war. We now have a modern democracy and a NATO ally in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire ended with the war. The last Russian Tsar was ushered out and Lenin and eventually Stalin ushered in as a result of that war. The war brought an end to emperors in Germany and Austria-Hungary and made France and Britain fearful of the rise of the Bolsheviks, but even more fearful of another European war.

An Austrian corporal injured in a gas attack in that war, used the defeat of Germany and its allies as a springboard to create what became the horrors of Nazism. Winston Churchill knew both glory and defeat in the great war and at its end helped invent the country where today American soldiers still try to create a democracy. Iraq, born of the great war and always an unnatural nation, has long been a violent and troubled place.

Woodrow Wilson, a prickly idealist about many things, thought the world – and his own nation – would study the horrors of the trenches, the gas attacks, the vast machine gun slaughter, and conclude that nations must band together to ensure a lasting peace. By 1920, Wilson couldn’t get the U.S. Senate to support his grand ambition of a League of Nations. By 1931, Japan had invade Manchuria, Hitler and his followers where marching in the streets of Bavaria and Mussolini was planning a “new Roman Empire” that would begin with the conquest of Ethiopia.

By 1939, barely 20 years after the war to end all wars had sputtered to a uneasy conclusion in muddy fields in France, most of the world was at war again.

World War I produced Captain Harry Truman, who served in France, and Lt. Col Dwight Eisenhower, who never got out of the country. George Patton saw action as the first U.S. tank commander in France and Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney were both ambulance drivers. Hermann Goering learned most of what he needed to know to command the German Luftwaffe as a World War I fighter pilot.

It was Frank Buckles’s fate to be the last solider of the great war. We should remember him for what he did and remember his war for what it did, too.