The War that Changed the World – in Commemoration

By | November 11, 2014

On the 11th of November 1914 the 1st World War, or the ‘Great War,’ had already lasted more than three months, and predictions that it would be over by Christmas had largely evaporated. The failure of Europe’s political leaders to find a solution to avert war was only beginning to produce the disaster that would follow.

It would go on for another four years, killing, 8,528,831 million service men and women, and wounding 21,189,154; another 7,750,919 are still listed as missing. The U.S., which didn’t enter the war until 1917, suffered 116,516 deaths, 204,002 wounded and 4,500 missing – a casualty count exceeded only by the Civil War and World War II, both of which lasted far longer than U.S. participation in the 1st World War.

As European domestic and colonial empires began to crumble, an exhausted continent could do very little to prevent the changes that altered the world forever. The upheavals caused by the war were so wide spread [the Wall Street Journal listed 100 ] that it’s hard to imagine what the world would have been like if it had never happened.

The ink was hardly dry on the Armistice, signed in a rail car in the forest of Compiegne, north of Paris, when the wounds left by the defeat of Germany and its allies began to fester into a poisonous mixture that would result in a second, even more devastating world war.

"By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” J.R.R. Tolkien

While many countries gained independence from their overlords when the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires collapsed, the turmoil drove other countries, Russia and later Italy, to turn to totalitarian forms of government – a fact which a recently discharged Austrian corporal, Adolph Hitler, was well aware of.

Many of the newly sovereign nations, however, were inherently unstable, and remain so, as evidenced by the chaos in the Middle East. Nationalism and Jewish immigration to Palestine, culminating in the creation of the State of Israel, are frequently cited as the primary causes.

The underlying causes, however, go deeper. They include the artificial state boundaries mandated by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the UK and France to divide the regions, as well as traditional tribal, rather than national, loyalties, religious fervor that admits of no compromise, and the lack of effective democratic governments, which led to one-party/one-man dictatorships in most of the region.

Those are just a few of the consequences engendered by the Great War. While the statistics above provide a picture of the extent of life lost, they are only part of the story. The war ended the future lives of poets, writers, artists, statesmen, businessmen, scientists, architects, engineers, doctors and many others who had the potential for great and perhaps memorable achievements.

Therefore, it’s no wonder that European nations, particularly Britain and France, continue to observe the date of the 1918 armistice – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – with the upmost respect and reverence. While observance of Veteran’s Day [formerly Armistice Day] in the U.S. seems to have diminished over the years, it is being commemorated with renewed vigor in Europe, as it coincides with the 100th anniversary of the war’s beginning.

The moat of the Tower of London has been covered with an art installation featuring more than 800,000 red ceramic poppies, emblematic of the losses suffered by the British Army and Commonwealth soldiers in ‘Flanders Fields.’ A special service was held in the Belgian city of Ypres to commemorate the 55,000 British soldiers who died there in some of the war’s bloodiest battles. Traditional services will also be held at military bases, churches and schools throughout the UK. In London, there will be services at Westminster Abbey, the Cenotaph war memorial, and Trafalgar Square.

In France services will be held at every one of the war memorials that are a prominent feature in every city, town and village in the country. President François Hollande dedicated a special War Memorial at the church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris this morning, and will preside over commemoration ceremonies this afternoon.

Fortunately, not every potential writer, poet, or artist died in the war. J.R.R. Tolkien was one notable survivor. His Lord of the Rings Trilogy was first published 60 years ago in 1954, but its origins go back to his service in World War I.

It’s hard to really understand what effect it had on him, but in the forward he provided for the second edition of the book he wrote: “One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

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