The War to End All Wars

Way back on April 6th, 1917, the United States entered the First World War.  France, England, Russia, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Turkey had already been duking it out for years by then.  Roughly concurrent with America’s entry, Russia was forced to pull out due to the success of the Bolsheviks in toppling the Romanov dynasty.

There are many odd facts about this war.  For starters, at the war’s beginning, France and Switzerland were the only European countries that weren’t monarchies.  Along with this, the ruling monarchs of Russia, Germany and Great Britain were all first cousins.  Kaiser Wilhelm II spoke fluent English, the result of paying many visits to his grandmother, Queen Victoria.

A sad irony involves the immense popularity the beginning of the war had with the common people.  Europe had not been embroiled in a major conflict since Napoleon.  The Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars were fairly well contained.  The Boer War was fought on the other side of the planet.  Those in power, however, dreaded the prospect.  They knew all too well about the destructive capabilities of modern weapons.  The tacticians of the day had no idea how to fight against machine guns.  The best they could do was to send so many troops against one that it would eventually run out of ammunition.  When Wilhelm sent the telegram to launch the invasion of France as laid out in the Schlieffen plan, he then turned to his generals and famously said: “Gentlemen, we will regret this.”

Just prior to this meeting, Wilhelm was on vacation, sailing his yacht around the fjords of Norway.  He first learned of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia in a Norwegian newspaper.  He, of course, turned the boat around and went right back home.  Young history students are taught that WW I was the result of pre-existing military commitments, a.k.a. “interlocking alliances”, that kicked into place after Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were murdered by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, Bosnia.  That’s pretty much the case, but I would still refer back to the lack of war-weariness among the general population and the fatal enthusiasm that took its place.

When the U.S. entered the war, we had hardly any boots to put on the ground.  But we had a navy pretty much equivalent to that of the Brits, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt and the Great White Fleet.  John Keegan, in The Price of Admiralty, said that Napoleon could raise an army in a couple of weeks, but, it takes decades to put together a navy.  Thus, a serious strategic advantage was gained by the Allies because of the U.S. Navy.  During the deployment, an American sailor named Benjamin Kubelsky would entertain his off-duty shipmates by playing the violin.  He later became a show business icon known as Jack Benny.

With Russia knocked out of the war, the Germans were invigorated.  It was no mystery as to why they took Lenin from exile in Switzerland and injected him, like a bacillus, into St. Petersburg.  Under Ludendorff, the Germans then unleashed a series of major offensives in the West.  The French army started to mutiny and both the Brits and French began to consider suing for peace a.k.a. surrender.

But then the Americans started performing on the ground.  Unlike the Brits and French, the Yanks had not yet been pounded into war-weariness.  Combined with the vastly improved naval presence, the Allies began to starve the Central Powers into submission.  In the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes German artillery shells falling short on their own soldiers due to worn out cannon barrels.

Armistice negotiations then began in the latter part of 1918.  The sticking point was the disposition of the Kaiser.  Eventually he wound up raising tulips in the Netherlands.  A further irony was that, because of intense propaganda, the German people still thought they were on the verge of winning the war until they woke up to find themselves occupied by foreign soldiers.  This unhappy surprise particularly affected an injured military message runner who was recovering from temporary blindness due to a gas attack.  His name was Adolf Hitler.

The unanswered question in all of this that begs attention is: why was this war ever fought in the first place?  There was no fierce aggression on the part of ruthless dictators to be defended against.  Nor was there any other compelling national necessity or even a measurable benefit to be gained.  Ethnic Serbian nationalism within Bosnia fulfilled Bismarck’s warning about: “Some damn foolish thing in the Balkans.”  He also said that the Balkans began in the suburbs of Vienna.

The eminent military strategist B. H. Liddell-Hart linked WW I to the American Civil War, the latter being the first industrial war, which involved railroads, telegraph, armored warships, and repeating rifles.  He blames the murderous stagnation of trench warfare on an erroneous biography of Stonewall Jackson.  Most the last year of the Civil War was fought in trenches around Petersburg, Virginia. However, unlike the Civil War, WW I did not end with one side obviously defeating the other but rather with a negotiated armistice.

Subsequent consequences included the creation of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, neither of which still exist.  Another was the creation of the modern Middle East.  The Turks got to keep their Anatolian homeland, but they were stripped of the rest of the Ottoman Empire, in particular the Hejaz, which included the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.  The reparations imposed on Weimar Germany led to the destruction of its currency and ultimately to the dictatorship of the Third Reich.  The depletion of the male population resulted in a major increase in the number of unmarried women, many of whom became spinster schoolteachers.  In order to lower demand on the strategically important electrical grid, daylight savings time was imposed in the U.S. for the final months of the war and reimposed, thus far permanently, after Pearl Harbor.  Also, isolationism and pacifism achieved serious political influence, paving the way for Hitler’s initial military success.

Image: Picryl

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