HISTORICALLY SPEAKING: The Great War

CHICKASHA, Okla. — I did not intent to write another column so soon, but I am becoming concerned by the lack of recognition of the 100th anniversary of the armistice of World War I.  The nation went all out on the Bicentennial of our nation (for good reason), the same for the 100 and 150 year anniversaries of the Civil War, but, at least locally for me, nothing on the Great War.  I understand some of the reasons why: the Great War just does not carry the weight or popularity as these other wars. 

I believe the reason is that WWI is not a sexy war.  It’s a weird way to describe a war, I know, but it’s true.  The Civil War and WWII are totally sexy wars, with probably more books written about them than any other American subject.  Think about what draws attention to them–larger than life generals engaged in vast sweeping campaigns and movements.  One time in class I asked my students to name one general or battle from WWI.  All I got were blank stares, and these were history students.  I followed up my question with the same but for WWII.  I got Patton, Ike, Bradley, Nimitz, and MacArthur, even Rommel, and he fought for the enemy.  For battles there was D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, the Italian campaign, Stalingrad, Midway, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, just to name a few.  All that but nothing about WWI. 

Every history students knows about Patton racing across Europe to rescue the 101st Airborne in the Argonne Forest.  It’s a great action story, even if the 101st never claimed to need rescuing.  What Stonewall Jackson did in the 1862 Valley Campaign is nothing short of pure genius Generalship.  But in WWI, men suffered and slugged it out in trenches for months at a time only to wait for the next general to order them over the top.  Men would pour out of their enclosed positions running towards the enemy trench only to be mowed down by machine gun fire.  The war was fought over hundreds of yards at a time in what was basically a stalemate. 

There is also the issue of cause.  I know the Civil War is complicated, but men were fighting for their rights, their states, to keep the Union together, and ultimately for slavery.  WWII men were fighting to rid the world of evil personified in the person of Adolph Hitler.  But what were men fighting for in The War to End All Wars? It’s too difficult to really explain here and is not really a good reason anyway.  There were alliances and an Archduke died, but it is hard to call it a justifiable war.

So, yes, it’s not a sexy war, but that does not mean it’s not an important war.  In fact, I believe World War I is the most important event in the 20th century.  It has farther reaching consequences than anything else.  I don’t have room to discuss everything, or anything in detail, so I just want to highlight a few.  Maybe the biggest is World War II.  This is more than just you have to have one before two, but without one there would not have been a two.  The way that the Great War ended set up a situation that allowed Hitler to come to power.  Under normal circumstances. I can’t believe the German people would have ever supported Hitler, but under the Treaty of Versailles, they were desperate.

As long as we are talking about future problems, WWI also gave us the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  This war so profoundly devastated the Russian people that they rose up and overthrew the Czar.  The democratic government they created, the Duma, made the mistake of releasing all political prisoners, allowing others back in the nation, but also not ending the war.  One of the exiled Russians who returned was Vladimir Lenin.  A few months after the first revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks held a second revolution, promising the people land, bread, but mostly peace.  Without WWI, there never would have been a communist government in Russia.  Think how the rest of the world’s history would be different without communists Russia.

Another area that affects us greatly today is the Middle East.  This is too complex to explain here, but it was during WWI that T.E. Lawrence and the Arabs rose up and threw off their Ottoman Turkish rulers.  With the Ottomans defeated, the western power carved up new nations, creating the modern Middle East, including nations like Iraq, a nation we now know too well.  All because of WWI.

There are so many other things to address, such as the Armenian genocide, the Spanish Flu, and the rise of America’s economic prominence in the world.   However, with the little room I have left, I want to say something about the men, the ones we should honor this day.  First, the sheer numbers. 

The American Civil War established a new high in casualties with 700,000 men dead, yet this WWI dwarfed those numbers, numbers that could never have been conceived of before the war.  The Germans lost 1,8000,000 men; the Russians, 1,700,000; the French, 1,385,000; the Austrians, 1,200,000; the British, 947,000; the Americans come in with the much lower number of 116,000.  The numbers are staggering. 

The men in this war lived through a virtual hell.  They spent a great deal of the conflict living in muddy trenches that were six feet deep and wide enough for two men to pass.  It seemed as if the trenches were always full of water or at least muddy to the point that the term “trench foot” was given to men’s rotting feet.  They eat, slept, and worked in the mud next to the rats and lice that were as numerous as they were.  They had to endure new technologies like tanks, planes, machine guns, but, worst of all, poison gas.  The conditions were so bad that the men experienced what was known as shell shock, what today we would call PTSD.  But those men were expected to get back to the trenches.

Americans today do not really study the Great War.  We don’t have many movies or shows depicting the events.  Those who were alive during the war, never forgot the misery of that conflict, but those soldiers are gone now.  The agreement for the guns to cease firing was on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a date that became known as Armistice Day. 

Today we call November 11th Veterans Day, a day to remember all who have served to keep American free. Today however, let us spend a few more minutes thinking about those who served in the Trenches.  Maybe at 11:00 remember a world that was broken and the men who gave their all in a war that seems to be slipping away from memory.  If we remember that the Cold War, 9/11 and the Gulf War, and even WWII may never have happened with the Great War, maybe we can do better honoring its memory and try to understand the conflict so that we do not repeat its mistakes in the future.  

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. To follow Historically Speaking on Facebook search for @jamesWfinck