A Century Destroyed: Thoughts on the Legacy and Horror of ‘The Great War'(Part 1).

Posted: June 26, 2014 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. June 28th.  A prominent date in the history of the world. To be more precise, June 28th, 1914.  100 years ago almost to the day. If you don’t recognize this date, and if it doesn’t ring bells like December 7th, July 4th, or September 11th, let me explain. On June 28th, 1914, a young Serbian terrorist by the name of Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the

Artist's drawing of the assassination.

Artist’s drawing of the assassination.

Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  This assassination set into motion the foreign policy decisions of Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France and England that led to the outbreak of the Great War during the summer of 1914. The Great War was in no way a ‘good war’.  Greatness signified scale, not quality.  The horror of the war made people hope that it would be the ‘war to end all war.’  In fact, the opposite was the case. The Great War would in actuality be overshadowed 20 years later by an even more extreme conflict in the Second World War.   But to understand the Second, we must investigate the First, because without it, the Second would not have taken place. With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the The First World War approaching, I think it only right to put together a series of blogs devoted to this catastrophe of  human folly.


There are only handful of people living today who were alive during the First World War, and most were tiny children at the time. All those who fought in the war, and lived to tell the tale, have long since passed on.  For the vast majority of us today, the war lives on only in written memory and cultural imagination.  Ironically though, the war can seem completely unimaginable.   The sheer scale of the war for anyone under 80 years old (who can remember the even more massive Second World War) is beyond  reckoning.  Since 1960, the Western way of war has become localized and specialized; like much else, war has become professionalized, mechanized, and corporatized. For my generation of Americans who have not been a part of the military (the vast majority of us), war can seem remotely distant; both geographically, and emotionally. Statistics can paint the picture. Numbers will provide us perspective.

fallujah-203

American soldiers fighting in Fallujah

In the Second Iraq War, the ‘Second Battle of Fallujah” was the largest battle fought.  In this battle American, British and Iraqi forces attacked insurgents in the Iraqi city of Fallajuh. The coalition forces fought with 13,000 men. They outnumbered the 5,000 insurgents within the city.  The battle lasted a little over a month. It was deadlier than most engagements.  Coalition forces lost over a hundred killed in action, and 600 wounded, and the insurgents lost about 1500 dead. These numbers should not be belittled. But, when put into relation to the First World War, Fallujah illustrates the extreme horror of 1914-1918. Let’s compare Fallujah to the worst of The First World War; The Battle of Verdun.  The Battle of Verdun took place from February 1916, until December 1916.  The

French soldiers at Verdun

French soldiers at Verdun

battle began when German forces attacked French positions east of the ancient fortress city of Verdun.  On the morning of February 21st, the Germans inundated the French lines with over 150,000 men.  In the lead up to the attack, the Germans rained down 2.5 million shells on the French forces.  For 10 months, the two armies slugged it out over terrain that slowly became more and more nightmarishly pock-mocked.  With the dead everywhere, constantly being violently disinterred by artillery, Verdun was often described as a giant charnel house. Being sent into the battle’s front line was understood to be close to a death sentence.  Here is how two different French soldiers described the experience:

You eat beside the dead; you drink beside the dead, you relieve yourself beside the dead and you sleep beside the dead. People will read that the front line was Hell. How can people begin to know what that one word – Hell – means.

After almost a year of incessant fighting, both the French and Germans lost roughly 350,000 men each.  In this one battle alone, 700,000 men died.  To put that into perspective,

Aerial photo of Verdun fort before and after battle.

Aerial photo of Verdun fort before and after battle.

that is about the number of Americans killed in The American Revolution, The War of 1812, The Mexican-American War, The First World War, The Second World War, The Korean War, The Vietnam War and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan….COMBINED. One battle, Ten months, 700,000 dead.  The First World War would have a thousand more battles, and would rage for over 40 months more.  Those men who died at Verdun would be joined by 9 MILLION others. It is difficult to wrap your mind around such suffering. This war’s blood-letting would form our world. In the coming weeks, we will see how.

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