Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First World War's legacy still growing

  • Print

"It was not worth even one life," said Harry Patch shortly before he died in 2009 at the age of 111. He was the last survivor of the 65 million soldiers who fought in the First World War, and by the time he died, it was a normal, quite unremarkable thing to say. But he would never have said it in 1914.

Very few people thought war was a bad thing in 1914. Losing a war could be a bad thing, but the obvious solution to that problem was to be very good at war. Human beings had always fought wars, military values were deeply embedded in our culture, and nobody expected those attitudes to change. And then they did change.

The First World War was a human tragedy, of course, but this was when the human race began to question the whole institution of war: how useful it is, but also how inevitable it really is. And the answer to both questions is: not very.

There are still a few countries that owe everything to their ability to win wars: Israel comes to mind at once. But most countries, and most people, now see war as a very undesirable last resort. We have the First World War to thank for this great change.

The thing most people miss about the First World War is it was a perfectly normal political event. Ever since the rise of modern centralized states in 16th-century Europe, they had all gone to war with each other in two big alliances at around half-century intervals. The wars were effectively about everything: borders in Europe, trade routes and colonies in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The great powers fought other, littler wars as well, but these big events -- the 30 Years' War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Seven Years' War and so on -- were like a general audit of their status. Who's up, and who's down? Who can expand, and who must yield?

It was a perfectly viable system, because the wars mostly involved small, professional armies and did not disturb civilian populations much. The casualties were low, and hardly any major player ever crashed out of the system entirely. Naturally enough, most people did not see this system as a problem that had to be solved. It was just another fact of life.

The only diplomatic difference in 1914 was the great powers co-ordinated their moves better than before. Almost all of them were at war in a few days, where it would have taken months or even a few years in the old days. The armies could move quickly to the frontiers by rail, so now you created your alliances before the war -- and everybody had the telegraph -- so the final decisions were made fast.

But once the war started, everything was different. The armies were 10 times as big as they used to be, because these were now rich, industrialized countries that could afford to put most of the adult male population into uniform. That meant the soldiers getting killed were fathers, brothers, husbands and sons: part of the community, not the wastrels, drunks and men on the run who made up such a large part of the old professional armies.

And they were getting killed in unprecedented numbers. The new weapons -- machine-guns, modern artillery and so on -- were very efficient killing machines, and within a month, the soldiers had to take shelter in trenches from the "storm of steel." They spent the rest of the war trying to break through the trenches, and by the end of it, nine million of them had been killed. That is what changed everything.

The senior politicians and diplomats of 1918, living amid the wreckage of the old world, could see the old international system was now delivering catastrophe, and had to be changed. So they set out to change it, by creating the League of Nations. They outlawed aggressive war, and invented the concept of "collective security" to enforce the new international rules.

They failed, at first, because the legacy of bitterness among the losers in the First World War was so great a second one came only 20 years later. That one was bigger and worse -- but at the end, everybody tried again. They had to.

The United Nations was founded in 1945, with slightly more realistic rules than the League of Nations but the same basic goal: to stop wars among the great powers, for those are the wars that kill in the millions. Stopping other wars, too, would be nice, but first things first -- especially now that there are nuclear weapons around.

All you can say is it hasn't failed yet in its main task: No great power has fought any other one directly for the past 69 years. Ignore the headlines that constantly tell you the world is falling apart. The glass is more than half-full.


Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 A13

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Gary Lawless & Ed Tait try not to bleeping cry over the woesome Jets

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A Canada goose protects her nest full of eggs Monday on campus at the University of Manitoba- Standup photo- Apr 30, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Down the Hatch- A pelican swallows a fresh fish that it caught on the Red River near Lockport, Manitoba. Wednesday morning- May 01, 2013   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Will you get out and vote for a new mayor and council?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google