In the United States, November 11th is celebrated as Veteran’s Day. In much of the rest of the world, however, November 11th carries a different significance.
On this date in 1918 (98 years ago as of this writing), the armistice that ended WWI was signed at Compiègne. WWI was, perhaps, the least logical and most preventable war in the modern history of the world, and yet it was fought, and produced misery on an unbelievable scale at that time. Sadly, part of its legacy was WWII, which increased the human suffering from war still further.
America’s involvement in WWI was fairly limited. We only started getting significant numbers of troops into the Western Front in the war’s final months, and yet over 100,000 Americans lost their lives. Had we fought the full four years, it is highly likely we would have eclipsed the American death toll from WWII, and possibly even the Civil War.Korea is often called America’s forgotten war. I think WWI properly deserves that distinction. And this truly is a pity, as the world continues to deal with its effects.
I blogged about this elsewhere for the 100th anniversary of the start of the war. I quote that at length here:
The most obvious, and best recognized, consequence of WWI is that it lead rather directly to WWII (as well as to the various evils that happened during WWII itself). The catalyst was the Treaty of Versailles, which was an entirely one-sided treaty. Despite the fact that the German State continued to exist after WWI (as opposed to WWII, when the German State ceased to exist), the Germans were not invited to the negotiations, and the full text of the treaty was forced upon them, with no ability to negotiate. Hence, Germany was forced to accept guilt for the war, forced to give up a lot of territory (beyond the territory they acquired from the Soviet Union), and forced to accept the harsh reparations that were to be paid to the Allies. For a variety of reasons (detailed in this article), Germany never actually finished paying the reparations, and they were finally cancelled around the time of Hitler’s rise, but in the 1950s, the Federal Republic of Germany began repaying loans the German government took out to pay the reparations. The final loan payment was not made until 2010.
All these reasons contributed to the tremendous social unrest in Germany starting in 1919 leading to the establishment of a small political party known as the German Worker’s Party. An out of work Austrian, a veteran of the German Army in WWI who had risen to the rank of Corporal during the war, was asked to infiltrate the party and gather intelligence about it. He would eventually rise to lead what became known as the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The word Nazi is derived from the party’s name in German (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei).
WWI contributed to WWII in other ways, as well. The most notable involved two of the WWI allies (Italy and Japan) switching sides in WWII. Despite fighting on the side of the allies (the Entente), both of these countries were left out of the Versailles Treaty negotiations, and gained virtually nothing in return for their efforts (Italy kept a fairly significant number of Austro-Hungarian and German troops occupied, Japan aided in the capture of some of Germany’s colonies in the Far East as well as assisting in the naval campaign against Germany in the Pacific). These perceived insults resulted in a former Socialist seizing power in Italy (Benito Mussolini) and the rise of militarism and expansionism in Japan. The Italian Fascists provided a blueprint for the Nazis. Japan’s desire to be treated as a Great Power would ultimately lead to the Pacific War. These nations, along with Germany, formed the core of the Axis Powers.
The Soviet Union
Germany’s plan in 1914 was to knock France out of the war quickly before Russia was able to mobilize. This plan failed for a number of reasons, and Germany found itself doing exactly what it did not want, fighting a war on multiple fronts. In addition to the Eastern and Western fronts, Germany’s armies were forced to prop up their allies, who were not nearly as strong militarily or politically.
At the start of WWI, Vladimir Lenin was living in a part of what is now Poland, but which was then in Austria-Hungary, thus trapping him outside of Russia. He would eventually move to Switzerland. As the tsarist government began to collapse in 1917, he wanted to return to Russia to further the revolution he had been fomenting for years. He eventually secured transportation through Germany to Russia, as well as financial backing from the German government. Germany hoped that Russia might be forced to exit the war as the Russian government became further destabilized. This is what ultimately happened.
The Soviet Union was born as a result of WWI. It is quite likely that the Romanov dynasty would have fallen anyway. Prior to the war, several revolutions had occurred and the tsarist government was extremely unpopular, but whatever replaced the tsars may well have been different. This one consequence of that war would dominate much of the remainder of the twentieth century, and the Soviet Union itself continues to cast a shadow on much of the world in one way or another, from remaining communist governments that were propped up by the USSR, to the ubiquitous AK-47 that is used by national armies, terrorists, paramilitary groups, and so on.
The End of Empires
The First World War was fought primarily between empires, with the majority of them European. The following empires (as well as possibly others that are less familiar) went to war: The British Empire, the French Colonial Empire, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Japanese Empire. By the end of the war, the British Empire was weakened, though intact, the French Colonial Empire was weakened, the German Empire ceased to exist, replaced by a republic, the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated into many smaller nations, the Ottoman Empire disintegrated (a process which did not end until the mid 1920s), and the Russian Empire was replaced with the Soviet Union. Of these empires, only Japan did not find itself in a weakened state, but, as mentioned above, they were slighted in the Versailles Treaty, which eventually led to their becoming an Axis Power in WWII. These empires took decades, even centuries, to build, but in the span of a few years they collapsed, and most of those that survived went into a decline that would eventually see them cease to be an empire.
The result was a staggering redrawing of the map of the world, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. Nations such as Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Turkey were born from the ruins of these empires, and in other places lands changed hands.The French and British took control of territory in the Middle East, territory that would eventually become the nations of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Additionally, new nations were formed that were the forerunners of modern day Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and many others. Furthermore, Germany’s overseas possessions in Africa and the Pacific changed hands, re-distributed between the Entente (as the alliance between Britain, France, and Russia was known) and their allies.
WWI also left myriad secondary effects related to events that it caused. In broad strokes, these were primarily due to WWII and to the creation of the Soviet Union.
One secondary effect was the rise of the US to becoming first a major world power, and then a super power. Prior to the Spanish War of 1898, the US had largely only held influence in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish War gave the US a fairly small overseas empire, but it was the US’ industrial and economic strength that truly turned it into a major power. In WWI, both sides wanted the US as an ally, or at least not as an ally of their opponent. America’s entry into WWI on the side of the Entente tipped the scales away from the Central Powers chance at victory in the West, even though American interest groups funded much of the Entente’s war effort since 1914.
Despite the influence it gained during the war, the US turned back in toward itself in the inter-war years, until WWII brought the US back on to the world stage. It was WWII that transformed the US into a truly global power and then into a superpower.
Somewhat similar to the US’ rise in world power was the rise of the Soviet Union. This nation, essentially created by the influence of Germany, quickly rose from a fairly feeble regional power through the 1930s to a major power during WWII, and within a few years to became a superpower. Given the sharp ideological differences between the Soviet Union and its puppets in Eastern Europe and the Western Allies, led by the United States and Great Britain, the rise of two new alliances in opposition to each other (NATO and the Warsaw Pact) was not a surprise. One of the legacies of WWII was the Cold War. Another legacy was the dawn of the Nuclear Age. Though nuclear weapons and nuclear power would certainly have developed eventually, the world created by WWII heavily influenced the timing. The fact that only two nuclear weapons have thus far ever been used is itself possibly due to the lessons learned during the first two World Wars, thereby not leading the Cold War into WWIII.
Finally, we must not overlook WWI’s contributions to the various civil rights movements throughout the Twentieth Century. In Europe and the US (as well as the rest of the world), the majority of women had always worked outside the home, but WWI marked the entrance of women into jobs traditionally considered “men’s work.” With millions of men fighting, women had to step in and take over their jobs, especially those in industries that produced war materials. This happened on an even broader scale in WWII, and to encourage the women doubtful of their capabilities, the iconic Rosie the Riveter was born, telling women “We can do it!” The ripple effects of this encouragement would ultimately culminate in the women’s rights movement in the Sixties. Furthermore, the increasing number of men required for both war efforts quickly ate through the available white men, forcing the US to use black men in a wider role. Although typically relegated to positions such as cook, stretcher bearer, or other positions deemed beneath that of a white man, some (such as the famous Tuskegee Airmen) served with distinction in combat, proving themselves to be the equal of whites. Their efforts form the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement that finally exploded in the 1960s.
The last known living veteran of WWI (serving in any capacity) was a British woman named Florence Green, who died in 2012. There are few, if any, people remaining who lived through the war and remember it. Yet today, 100 years later, we continue to live with the world it created for the reasons discussed above, as well as for many others I did not discuss. It changed the course of world history in ways that perhaps no other war before it, even though there had been other “world wars” fought in prior centuries. It is unfortunate that it is poorly understood in the US, and it is due to this that I undertook to write this fan post. I hope anyone who found this and took the time to read it found it interesting and decides to learn more about the War to End All Wars.
The picture at the top of the page is a field of poppies. Poppies are associated with WWI due to their growth in Flanders, one of the most fought over terrains in the war. The significance is greatest in the British Commonwealth (then the British Empire) as they were the chief Entente power to fight at Flanders. It is so important that an art exhibit of nearly 900,000 poppies was erected at the Tower of London in 2014; one poppy for each Commonwealth soldier who died in the war.
I will conclude with what is probably the most well-known poem to come from the war, “In Flanders Fields”
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.