One Hundred Years On, Reflections on the Great War: Memory, Meaning and a World in the Making – Part I

In this great future, you can’t forget your past.

Bob Marley

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The Archduke’s  death set off a chain of events which in the space of a few months plunged much of Europe into World War I.

In the end, empires collapsed, while ethno-nationalism flourished.

I have long been fascinated by that conflagration, once believed to be the war to end all wars. My grandfather enlisted at seventeen and spent four years in trenches of the Western Front. For the third time since the early 1970s, I recently revisited many of the principal battlefields in France and Belgium.

There are now many interpretive centres and museums, brimming with photos, artifacts and maps that assist the visitor in coming to terms with the magnitude of the tragedy. Were it not for all of the memorials, and all of the dead, the casual passer-by would not guess what happened there. The dimensions of the violence were almost unimaginable. Two hundred thousand French dead at Verdun. Fifty-eight  thousand British casualties on July 1st, 1916, the first day of battle on the Somme and the worst day ever in the history of the British army. Of the 1.5 million total casualties in that four-month campaign, four hundred and twenty thousand British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing for the sake of gaining just two miles – a loss of two men per centimeter.

The former front lines are eerily peaceful and mainly pastoral now. Years of tillage have restored the once mangled landscape.  The orderly patterns of established agriculture have a calming effect. Ragged shell holes and huge mine craters have mostly been smoothed away, like so much else of what we would rather forget, and their shapes now melt seamlessly into the flowing rural contours. The trees, reduced by artillery to pulp and matchsticks, have re-grown. The atmosphere is pacific and prosperous, very much the new Europe.

These bucolic images obscure the big questions that haunt us still. Why did the political leadership choose war over peace, fighting over talking?

After the stalemate on the battlefield became clear, why did both sides opt to continue the slaughter for another three and a half years?

When it was all over and a peace deal struck finally at Versailles, the waste of a generation of young men had resolved little, and, over the longer term, achieved less.

Could a serious effort at pre-war diplomacy have resolved outstanding differences and accommodated the rise of new powers by offering plausible alternatives to violence?

Almost certainly. Yet from all of this too little has been learned.

If we are to more successfully broach the 21st century’s complex suite of threats and challenges, there is very much to be done.

More on all of this in the next post.