The Price of a Mile: Reflections on the Folly of the Great War

Synopsis

On this the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I share some thoughts and reflections concerning this great conflict. I discuss the enormous human cost of the war, and the flagrant disregard for life displayed by all sides throughout its course. I analyze the utter futility and pointlessness of the war, and examine how this pointlessness contrasted with the rationalistic manner in which technology was applied to the conflict. I then discuss the peace settlement, examining how it failed to achieve a stable postwar geopolitical settlement, and thus sowed the seeds for the next great conflict. I conclude with some thoughts on the importance of studying and remembering history.

Such Waste of Life

Some ten million soldiers and perhaps six million civilians died in World War One. This included entire generations of young men from many of the major combatant nations: 1.4 million from France, 2 million from Russia, 2 million from Germany, 1.3 million from Austro-Hungary, and 1 million from the British Empire. Many millions more returned home wounded. The psychological effect of the war was also immense: among the British forces, the term ‘shell shock’ came to be used to describe the symptoms of dizziness, amnesia, headache, etc which, in the absence of any obvious physical injury, plagued an increasingly large proportion of the men who had been exposed to prolonged artillery bombardment in the trenches, unable to either flee or fight back.

Throughout the conflict, all sides exhibited a disgustingly profligate disregard for human life. The Battle of Verdun, an eleven month campaign consisting of several waves of German assaults against the French fortress at Verdun, left about 300,000 men dead, and the front lines almost exactly where they had been at the commencement of the engagement. During the Battle of the Somme, the British suffered 60,000 causalities in a single day, with total deaths by the end of the six-month battle amounting to another 300,000 men. This battle was a victory for the allies – they managed to advance a grand total of six miles into the German lines. The well-known debacle at Gallipoli cost 110,000 lives, and achieved absolutely nothing – aside, that is, from the establishment of a rather perverse national obsession and related tourism industry in two of the less important combatant nations.

What was the Purpose of it All?

One is driven to wonder: what was the purpose of all this suffering and death? Why did millions of young lives continue to be poured into this immense conflict for over four years, to be killed or maimed by machine guns, artillery shrapnel, and air bombardment? It is  comforting to think that such death served a purpose – that the sacrifice was not in vain. But that is by no means clear. Even a century later, scholars still hotly debate the contributing factors which led to the outbreak of the war. Some causes are widely agreed upon: the balance of power struggle between the emerging power of Germany and the more established empires of Britain and France,  tensions between Russia, Austria, and other nations stemming from the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the rise in nationalist sentiment throughout Europe, and also the false confidence among many about how quickly any war could be brought to an end.

These factors, however, are all quite vague and high-level. They might be able to explain why a war broke out, but that’s not quite the same as explaining why, for instance, Germany and France each thought that it was a good idea to send millions of their young men to stand around in trenches for four years hurling bombs and projectiles at each other. What did either nation get from that? What was the point? Why were they fighting? Why were Russians dying in Poland, Americans in France, and Australians in Turkey? When the obfuscatory veil of diplomatic and geopolitical machinations is lifted, it is hard not to see the entire war for what it truly was: pure, unadulterated, folly. It served no purpose at all. All those men died for no reason whatever.

A Rationalistic Stupidity

Although the war itself was completely devoid of reason, the means by which it was carried out were anything but. One especially amazing thing about the war was the immense energy and ingenuity with which all the new wonders of science and technology were turned to the task of killing as many people as possible. Chemical weapons, machine guns, barbed wire, aircraft, tanks, submarines, railways, flamethrowers, wireless, telephones – all harnessed to make more efficient the process of getting bodies into trenches, smashing pieces of metal into these bodies at high velocity, and then removing removing the bodies from the trenches again. In a very real sense, the war represented the culmination of the industrial revolution. For the first time, the killing of young men had been turned into a mechanised, standardised, ‘rational’ assembly-line procedure.

The Failed Peace

Perhaps one of the most odious aspects of the war, somewhat ironically, was the manner in which it ended. In my view, the peace settlement established by the Treaty of Versailles was one of the most ill-conceived in the history of warfare. In particular, the war guilt clause (which placed the blame for the war entirely upon Germany), the loss of its colonies, the large reparations, and the sharp limitations on its armed forces (it was limited to 100,000 men, banned from having an airforce, and prohibited from using tanks or submarines), left Germany greatly humiliated and desirous of some kind of reprisal. Germany was not, however, substantively weakened as a military or economic power, as it retained most of its territory and industry. This was perhaps the worst outcome possible. German industry was left intact. The General Staff was preserved. Scientific and military expertise were retained. All that was achieved was to give Germany the justification and motivation to achieve redress by violent means. My point is not that the treaty was unfair or too harsh. My point is that it achieved the worst possible compromise: it looked harsh without actually being very harsh. Thus the seeds for the next war were well and truly planted.

Versailles also created a profusion of new, unstable, and in some cases (e.g. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) quite arbitrary new states, which produced a very profound power vacuum in central and eastern Europe. Even worse was the manner in which the provisions of the treaty were enforced. The United States refused to join the League of Nations (the newly created international organization tasked with preventing another great war), instead choosing to withdraw into political isolationism. This dramatically limited the effectiveness of the body, which without the involvement of the US proved to have very little real power. Britain and France likewise proved relatively unwilling to take action to maintain the treaty: most of the reparations were never paid, and virtually nothing was done throughout the course of the 1930s as Hitler openly violated one provision of the treaty after another. The League also proved to be completely unable to prevent conflict, doing virtually nothing to stop Italian, Japanese, and German aggression during the 1930s.

All in all, then, the peace settlement was badly designed, and that botched settlement itself was poorly implemented. The result was that the one thing which the First World War did have the potential to produce – a stable new international geopolitical system – was not to be found. When the treaty was signed in 1919, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch declared with remarkable foresight: “This is not peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years”.

The Legacy of History

The ‘War to End All Wars’, as it was called, did not live up to this grand title. It did succeed in ending four major world empires, a century of relative peace in Europe, the sense of optimism and progression that had pervaded the West over the past few decades, and over fifteen million lives. It did not, however, succeed in ending war. Though its consequences were profound, the war itself was an utterly senseless waste of life and resources.

More than anything, we must remember that this happened only a century ago, in what was considered (not without reason) to be the most ‘developed’, ‘advanced’, and ‘enlightened’ part of the world. We may think this could not happen to us in this day and age – we’ve moved beyond that sort of thing. Perhaps. But, on the other hand, new mothers of the 1890s did not expect to see their sons dying by the millions in the mud of the trenches. If we hope to avoid such a catastrophic folly from recurring in our time, we would do well to heed the lessons from history. And how can we heed the lessons of history of we do not learn about history, talk about history, think about history? For this and many reasons beside, history is vital.

Lest We Forget.

 

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3 thoughts on “The Price of a Mile: Reflections on the Folly of the Great War

  1. A moving piece. I feel so sad for those that lost their lives and for the suffering of those who were maimed, and their loved ones. Thank you for bringing important historical information to my attention in such a succinct manner.

    Like

  2. Great post James. It would be interesting to find out what significance the “person on the street” attaches to ANZAC day and/or Remembrance Day.

    Like

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