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


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.


70 Years On: Why D-Day still Matters

I discuss the historical background behind the Normandy Landings, why there are important, what impact they had on history, and why it is important they be commemorated.

Historical Overview
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which took place on the 6th of June 1944. The term “D-Day” is a generic military term which simply refers to the day on which an operation will be initiated, and is used for the purpose of secrecy and convenience. So, for example, military planners can lay out the sequence of objectives of an operation as occurring on D-Day, D+1, D+2, etc, without needing to refer to specific calendar dates which may be subject to change. Although still used in a generic sense, the term “D-Day” has now become strongly linked to the Allied invasion of German occupied France in 1944.

During the period of late 1939 and through to mid 1941, the Germans conducted a series of highly-successful military campaigns using a strategy which has come to be known as Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War”. In this period, the Germans successfully defeated and occupied Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. In addition, the states of Hungary, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria, and Finland were allied to the Germans. Spain, though officially neutral, was under the control of Franco, a fascist dictator whom Hitler had assisted in coming to power in the Spanish Civil War. Likewise Sweden, though also neutral, was fairly willing to accommodate Nazi demands for resources and other cooperation. Taken together, therefore, the from roughly the period of mid 1941 to mid-late 1944, almost all of Continental Europe was essentially under either direct or indirect German control, in what was known as “Occupied Europe”.

I mention all this because I think it is important to understand the backdrop against which the D-Day landings took place. In a very short period of time, the Germans had brought almost all of Europe to its knees. The mighty French army, lead by Pétain , hero of the First World War, was defeated in a mere six weeks. Though the Germans were later to face defeats against the Soviets, and also against the Western Allies (that is, Britain and the USA) in North Africa and Italy, taking the war back to the mainland in the west once again represented an enormous undertaking, not merely in terms of manpower and logistics, but also in terms of psychology. The courage and commitment of the men and women who made this invasion possible, therefore, cannot easily be overestimated.

Almost immediately after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had been pressuring the Western Allies to open a “second front” in Western Europe. Some moves were made in this direction with the 1942 Torch landings in North Africa, and with the invasion of southern Italy in 1943, but neither of these campaigns represented the substantial commitment that Stalin wanted. He wanted a “real” second front, one which would pose a significant threat to Germany, and force the Germans to redirect substantial forces away from the Eastern Front. This, most fundamentally, was the purpose of the Normandy Landings: to open up a second front that would take significant pressure off the Soviet Union, and force Germany into a true two-front war, thereby draining its resources and bringing the war to an end as quickly as possible.

The Scale of the Landings

The D-Day landings remain to this day the largest amphibious military assault in history. About 160,000 Allied troops crossed the channel on D-Day itself, transported and escorted by some 5000 ships and landing craft. The landings were also accompanied by a massive bombing campaign of military targets all across the French coast, and also airborne landing of some 24,000 troops behind enemy lines to assist in securing the initial bridgeheads. Planning for the massive operation began over a year beforehand, and in addition to a very large buildup of ships, tanks, and troops in Southern Britain, preparations also included an elaborate campaign of deception designed to mislead the Germans as to the intended target of the operation. This deception proved to be so successful that, even many hours after the landings had begun, Hitler remained convinced that the attacks on Normandy were only a diversion, and that the real invasion would take place in the Pas de Calais, where the distance across the English Channel is shortest. By the end of June, some 900,000 Allied troops had been landed in France, a remarkable achievement.

What if D-Day had Failed?

Although today it seems, with the benefit of hindsight, that D-Day was an inevitable success, at the time this was by no means clear, and the operation was considered to be incredibly risky. Had any number of factors turned out differently, such as poor weather, German intelligence gaining better information about the time and place of the landings, or if Hitler had freed up the Panzer reserves earlier to counterattack the beachheads, the allies could very well have been driven back into the sea. Eisenhower even penned a brief message, never used, to be read in the event that the landings were a failure. Had this occurred, it would have been a massive blow to Allied morale, and a huge boon to that of the Germans. Given the immense scale of the operation and the resources involved, the Allies would likely have been unable to launch a second attempt until early 1945 at the earliest. The Allied high command structure would likely have been shaken up (e.g. it is quite plausible that Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander responsible for the Normandy Landings, would have resigned), and possibly (though in my view somewhat less likely) the Americans would have decided to refocus their energies and manpower on first defeating the Japanese in the Pacific.

Perhaps most importantly, huge numbers of German troops, tanks, aircraft, and other supplies would have been freed up for transfer to the Eastern Front to fight against the Soviet Union. To give some sense of the magnitude of this, during early 1942, when the threat of invasion was lowest, the Germans maintained only 32 divisions in Western Europe. This was gradually increased in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of the Normandy Landings, reaching a peak of 79 German divisions in Western Europe by January 1945. This means that, if in the aftermath of a failed D-Day landing the Germans had been able to reduce troop levels in Western Europe to early 1942 levels, some 45 additional divisions would have been available for deployment on the Eastern Front, increasing German forces by about one third.

This substantial increase in German strength would also have been augmented by rising German production of tanks, aircraft, and munitions, which, in spite of losing ground in the East and coming under increasingly heavy attack in the Strategic Bombing Offensive, still actually peaked in August of 1944. As an illustration, the Soviet Union produced 24,000 tanks in 1942 and 29,000 in 1944, a fairly similar number. Germany, by contrast, increased tank production from a mere 6,000 in 1942 to 19,000 in 1944. Similarly, while the Soviets produced 10,000 fighter aircraft in 1942 compared to 5,500 by the Germans, in 1944 the balance had reversed, with 18,000 produced by the Soviets compared to 26,000 by the Germans. Thus, if D-Day had failed and the Germans been able to maintain these higher production levels their strength on the Eastern Front would have been substantially increased, thereby permitting the war to be prolonged considerably, and perhaps even shifting the balance in the Germans’ favour.

To this must also be added the “Wunderwaffe”, or ‘superweapons’ that German scientists and engineers were developing and beginning to deploy in late 1944 and early 1945. These weapons included the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rockets used to attack British cities, jet aircraft much faster than any of the propeller-driven machines possessed by the Allies, super-heavy tanks like the Tiger II virtually impenetrable to the guns of any Allied tank, the Elektroboot U-boats capable of operating fully-submerged, and the Sturmgewehr 44, the world’s first assault rifle which offered much higher rates of fire. None of these weapons were fielded in sufficient numbers to have any appreciable effect on the outcome of the war, but if the D-Day landings had failed and the war been prolonged, it is quite possible these weapons could have begun to have a significant effect.

As a result of all these factors, it is my belief that if the D-Day landings had failed, there is a small chance that Germany would have been able to win the war, or at least come to some sort of peace agreement with the Soviets after fighting them to a stalemate. More likely, I think, is that the Soviet Union would have been able to defeat Germany even without the second front, though with the continued assistance of the Allied aerial bombing campaign and also provision of materials and manufactured goods from America. This, however, would have lengthened the war considerably, probably by at least a year, and perhaps more if the German production increases and Wunderwaffe had a sufficiently large impact. The consequences of this prolongation of the war would have been enormous. The Soviet Union would likely have suffered several million more deaths, with the Germans also suffering perhaps one or two million more as well. In addition, it must not be forgotten that the Nazis were pushed back and defeated before they had completed their genocidal campaign against the Jews, such that by war’s end several hundred thousand Jews were still alive in each of Hungary and Romania, with hundreds of thousands more scattered throughout other occupied countries. If the Germans had an additional year or more to continue implementing their Endlösung, the Holocaust could have claimed many hundreds of thousands more victims.

A failure at D-Day would also have drastically changed the face of postwar Europe. At the very least, the Soviets would likely have occupied all of Germany and Austria, and quite possibly also some or all of France, Greece, and the Low Countries. This would have had enormous and unpredictable consequences for the development of Cold War politics, and also on the postwar social and economic development of Europe. Quite possibly the Cold War would not have ended in the same way as it did (for one thing there would have likely been no Berlin Wall, for Stalin probably would not have allowed the Western Allies into Berlin at all), and likely the European Union would not exist in anything like the form we know it today. Although the overall balance of consequences is impossible to assess, it seems highly likely to me that having most or all of Continental Europe dominated by the Soviet Union would not have been a desirable outcome, either for Europe itself or for the world at large.

Remembering the Past

In concluding this piece, I want to make a few remarks. First, I want to emphasize just how important the D-Day Landings were in shaping the outcome of World War Two, and hence also in effecting the progress of history ever since. The courage, boldness, and resolve of those who planned and supported the operation, and most especially of the Allied troops actually involved in the landings, is worthy of our greatest respect and esteem, something to be remembered for the rest of time. Their actions, as I have outlined above, likely saved millions of lives, and also helped to prevent tens of millions of people falling under the grip of Communism. What a truly amazing achievement.

Second, I want to emphasize something that I think is often overlooked in these discussions of D-Day, at least in the West, which is that, as important as the D-Day landings were, they should nonetheless still be considered to be essentially a ‘second act’, so to speak, to the main scene of the action in the Eastern Front. It is estimated that perhaps 70% of all German military manpower over the course of the war was directed to the Eastern Front. The sacrifice of the Soviet people was immense: total civilian and military losses in the war against Germany totaled about 27 million people, about 13% of the total population. The Western Allies, in comparison, lost only perhaps one million people in the fight against Germany. Thus, the importance of D-Day must always, in my view, be understood in the light of the enormous sacrifice by the Soviet Union in defeating the Nazis.

Third, I want to mention a point that I read in a number of articles that I read on the issue, which is that this will likely be the last major commemoration of the D-Day landings at which a significant number of veterans will be present. The landings were 70 years ago now, meaning even the youngest veterans are approaching 90 years of age. The Normandy Veterans Association, whose numbers have been rapidly dwindling in recent years, is set to disband in November this year. Within only a few decades, there will no longer be any World War Two veterans left alive. It will be up to us, therefore, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the generation who fought in the war, to remember their great sacrifice and courage.

Although this is slightly tangential to D-Day per se, I particularly worry about this with respect to the Holocaust. How will the memory of this most awful crime be kept alive in a real, visceral, meaningful way without living survivors to tell of it? I think it can be done, but doing so requires that we learn history, think about it, ponder what it means, consider how the actions and decisions of those in the past shapes the present and will continue to shape the future. It is in order to keep these memories alive, so that deeds of great valour and awful crimes alike, will not be forgotten and perhaps can even be learned from, that we commemorate anniversaries such as today.

Lest We Forget.