There is a scene at the beginning of the World War I-based play “WarHorse” in which a cavalry troop of British soldiers going to France in August of 1914, extol their readiness for combat and their belief that they will crush the Germans before Christmas.
World War I, or the Great War, did end slightly before Christmas – four years later in 1918, by which time most of the members of that troop were dead. They joined more than 10 million other soldiers who died for their respective countries, along with those who were wounded, or “missing.”
That now long ago conflict set the world on a new course. The costs – economically and socially – as well as in the lives lost – so profoundly altered societies across the globe that it is now hard to resurrect, let alone understand, the pre-war beliefs and the political systems with which it began, as none of them now exist.
The German, Austria-Hungarian and Turkish empires ended in 1918, as did the Russian Empire, which had fought for 3 years on what could be called the winning side. The empires of the victorious powers – Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan, along with the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal (who remained neutral) were intact, but lasted only a few more years.
They were torn apart following the Second World War, which killed so many people – most of them civilians – and so shattered Europe’s economy that it in effect completed the decimation that World War I started. The U.S. emerged from the conflict as the preeminent western “superpower,” in competition with the U.S.S.R. for global leadership. Those two conflicts are irrevocably linked. Eventually history will treat them as one war, in the same way we now consider the 100 Years War, the 30 Years War or the Napoleonic Wars.
As the colonial empires disintegrated, a great number of previously colonized people were enabled to pursue their own destinies – for better or for worse, albeit under the shadow of the “cold war.” In the latter half of the 20th century the east-west conflict dominated world concerns, economically, as wells as politically. While that conflict erupted into hot wars in many areas – notably Korea and Vietnam – there was no World War III, as many people had feared.
The emergence of the almost unlimited destructive power of nuclear weapons convinced even those who urged and planned for such a war that it would have brought about the end of human civilization. Had it happened, the following war would most likely have been fought with primitive weapons – sticks and stones – between tribes of cockroaches.
The war that ended 94 years ago yesterday is remembered not only for its ferocity, but also for the changes it wrought. As an example, on November 10, 1918 – 24 hours before the agreed upon armistice – 826 British soldiers died. That figure, recently unearthed by the BBC, meant little in 1918, compared to the carnage that had already occurred during the previous four years. Can you imagine the reaction today if a similar number of deaths happened in Afghanistan? Army investigations, Congressional committees and anti- war demonstrations would proliferate. In 1918 – nothing. Most of the world is now well aware of the costs of war in terms of human life.
World War I also hastened the empowerment of women. In most of Europe, the U.S. and other countries women couldn’t even vote before the 20th century. Many countries forbade women from owning property, or running their own businesses or even their own lives without male guidance. Women’s role during both the 1st and 2nd World Wars – taking the place of men on the assembly lines and in the delivery trucks, nursing the wounded and taking care of the home front – gave them the right to claim equal status with men.
They demanded and got the right to vote. Perhaps even more importantly they asserted their right to run their own lives as well, or as badly, as men, and to take up their rightful place in any field of endeavor they may choose – be it in politics, business or society.
Their votes, based on their concerns, were decisive in re-electing Barack Obama as President for a second term over a strong challenger; who, however, failed to convince a majority of U.S. women voters that he understood and would support issues of particular importance to them.
That is not a reason to carve out a special place for those who fought and died in World War I, as they certainly weren’t aware that 94 years later their sacrifices would be a catalyst in a U.S. presidential election. But the world works in strange ways; that long ago conflict was indeed a catalyst for change in so many ways. It is therefore right and proper to remember and honor those who fought that war, and all of those who fought and died in the wars that followed.
In Britain it’s called “Remembrance Day” in the U.S. “Veterans Day.” It used to be called “Armistice Day,” but no matter what it’s called, it is a solemn day – a day to recognize the sacrifices previous generations have made, so that those now alive can live in a better world.