It has been said by some historians and others that World War One was the most senseless waste of human life in the history of this planet. I tend to agree with this notion and not because I’m some sort of hippy peacenik and I want to make it clear that I in no way want to disrespect the men who fought and died in this war. In fact, one of the reasons I am writing this is because those who served in the trenches deserve all the honour and respect going. It’s the wisdom of the governments at the time I am calling into question. In my view, the First World War was always a twentieth century war started by pre-twentieth century diplomacy or the lack of it.
Most people who have any knowledge of history know the trigger which started the four year carnage, a perceived act of terrorism when a young Serbian radical named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. But how did this lead to a massive war involving nations from every continent? I will examine the main players to try to answer this.
First Austria-Hungary: The emperor of this nation was looking for any excuse to go to war with Serbia to regain the respect for his declining empire. That is why after Austria-Hungary sent Serbia an ultimatum over the murder of the Archduke and the Serbians agreed to every demand except for one, Austria-Hungary declared war on them.
Russia: Traditionally it has always seen itself as the protector of the Slovak people and that was its reason for rushing to the aid of Serbia. However, Russia was vying to be the number one nation in Central Europe and its main competitors were Germany and Austria-Hungary. Getting into a war would give them the opportunity to show it’s strength.
This leads me to Germany: They too were serious about being number one in Central Europe and saw Russia as its main rival. It was said by Kaiser Wilhelm that the two nations could not coexist without something happening. However, Germany didn’t just have its eye on Russia. Great Britain was number one in both colonizing the world and naval power. Germany, being number two, was more than eager to try to take the top spot.
Great Britain: They knew they were number one in the world at this time and wasn’t about to give it up without a fight. Furthermore, because they were number one, they often saw themselves as the world’s policemen. It was also because of their colonial power, they were able to drag countries such as India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand into fight on their side. What did any of these countries have to do with Europe?
France: A different story here, France had been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and as a result of their defeat, had to give two provinces to Prussia, who would later become part of Germany. The main issue about the land France had to surrender was that they were rich in coal and coal was the lifeblood of industry in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They were looking for payback.
So, after a month of feeble diplomacy designed to prevent conflict ,the first shots would be fired. When I say it was a 20th century war, I point out the diabolical weapons that were used in that war that inflicted atrocious casualties on mortal men. My most graphic image of World War One is men going over the top from their trench, getting mowed down my machine gun and other fire in their thousands to take a few hundred yards of ground. When I look at it in this context, I immediately see the futility of it all. The men who fought and were mentally and physically scarred for life or died were truly lions led by donkeys and I’m speaking more about the governments who sent them into this madness more than the generals who presided over it although the generals should not escape blame either. Four years later, with more than ten million dead and more than twenty one million wounded, did anything really change for the better?
Now I am going off on a side track here but as an American living in Western Europe I must speak. Since I have lived here, I have from time to time had to put up with those who live in nations who fought for the Allies who have attempted to lay a guilt trip on the United States for their late entry into the war. Notwithstanding some of these are the very same people who would criticise America for sticking its nose in where its not wanted, I must state that the US doesn’t deserve such a guilt trip! After all, it was only trying to adhere to the 1825 Monroe Doctrine which stated that the United States should not meddle in European affairs. In the early years of the war, many Americans, both politicians and people, saw entry into the war as meddling in such affairs. The simple fact is that the United States never should have gotten involved in that war. Nor should have Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Turkey. Australia, New Zealand, Russia or Germany.
Taking the above further, it is historically correct that the US entry into the war tipped the balance in favour of the Allies and secured victory. However, Americans have no right to boast to its then Allies that they saved them in the war. Unfortunately, some of my fellow countrymen forget the fact that the other nations mentioned had spent three years in the trenches fully facing all the horrors of this needless bloodbath called World War One before the US finally got into it.
Finally, all of what I have written here is all the reason why we should take the time during the centenary of World War One to honour the men who fought and died in the war, not their governments. It was these men who paid the ultimate price for their governments’ folly and misinformation. This is why I pledge now that whenever I see a monument for WWI, I will read each and every name on the memorial say a quick prayer that God will remember each and every one of them for what they had to endure and that is why I also wear the red poppy. The red poppy doesn’t glorify war, it remembers the futility of it.