97 years ago today, World War One, that meat-grinder of a generation, came to a halt, with 38 million people dead or injured. It was the worst war up to that point in history, and the levels of sheer brutality and waste stagger the mind even today.
Of those 38 million, 17 million died. That’s over the course of four years and change. That’s approximately 11,000 people per day that were killed. That’s more each and every day than the total number of soldiers the USA has lost during the War on Terror. That means every five days, the allies lost the same number of soldiers we lost during the Vietnam War.
The First World War was a terrible, pointless affair, best summed-up in this exchange from Blackadder Goes Forth.
Baldrick: The thing is: The way I see it, these days there’s a war on, right? and, ages ago, there wasn’t a war on, right? So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? and there being a war on came along. So, what I want to know is: How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?
Edmund: Do you mean “Why did the war start?”
George: The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-building.
Edmund: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.
George: Oh, no, sir, absolutely not. [aside, to Baldick] Mad as a bicycle!
Baldrick: I heard that it started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich ’cause he was hungry.
Edmund: I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.
Baldrick: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.
Edmund: Well, possibly. But the real reason for the whole thing was that it was too much effort not to have a war.
George: By Golly, this is interesting; I always loved history…
Edmund: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other’s deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Baldrick: But this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?
Edmund: Yes, that’s right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
George: What was that, sir?
Edmund: It was bollocks.
Baldrick: So the poor old ostrich died for nothing.
Sadly the ostrich wasn’t alone, and by the end of that episode, had plenty of company.
World War One doesn’t loom large enough in the American consciousness, and that’s a shame. We like to remember our clear-cut, wonderful victories, like in Revolution, when we beat the British, World War II, where we beat the Axis, and the Civil War, where we beat…well, other Americans.
But World War I is different. On paper, the US and the Allies won. But in reality, no one won that war. Millions dead, billions of dollars wasted, huge swathes of land devastated, nations destabilized, and the stage set for World War II: Adolf’s Revenge. It was a pointless, terrible waste, and maybe, just maybe, if we focused on this war and it’s outcomes more often, we might be somewhat less eager to rush into the next war.