Rushville Republican

March 25, 2014

The catastrophe of a century ago

By Paul W. Barada
Rushville Republican

---- — This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. It’s a little early for the actual state date of that four year conflict, which was July 28, 1914, but it’s not too soon to start thinking about the war that made the 20th century the bloodiest of all time. By the end of “The Great War,” as it was called until the start of World War II in 1939, more than 9 million men had been killed in combat. Another 21 million had been wounded, some horrifically, by the date of the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

One interesting highlight is the misunderstanding about the difference between signing an armistice and signing an actual peace treaty. An armistice is merely an agreement by the opposing sides to stop fighting for a certain period of time, much like a truce. Technically speaking, after Nov. 11, 1918, a state of war still existed for another seven months. The actual peace treaty wasn’t signed until June 28, 1919, with the Treaty of Versailles. The United States didn’t officially end its involvement in the war until the Knox-Porter Resolution was signed in 1921. For the nitpicky, the official legal date upon which World War I ended was with the signing of the final peace agreement, known as the Treaty of Lausanne, on July 24, 1923, when the Allied Powers and the Republic of Turkey finally concluded a peace agreement. Most people, however, think of the end date for World War I as Nov. 11, 1918.

There are many who would ague that there really was only one world war between 1914 and 1945, with nothing more than a period of rearmament from 1918 to 1939. I tend to agree with that point of view. Germany was in turmoil following the end of the first war and it was during 1919 that Hitler began his rise to power. By 1933, Hitler was Chancellor of Germany and the start of the march toward World War II, which began in 1939, had begun.

A full history of World War I would fill many volumes. My purpose is just to remind everyone of the great catastrophe that took place a century ago and involved millions of people around the world. After all, a total of 34 countries ultimately took part in the war.

As far as the United States was concerned, we were actually latecomers to the war. Even though World War I started in the summer of 1914, it wasn’t until April 6, 1917 that the US declared war on Germany. The first American troops landed in France during the early summer of 1918. By mid-summer 1918, the United States was landing 10,000 troops a day in France! When it was all said and done, the total number of American troops available for service during the war exceeded 4.7 million men. When one looks at the total number of troops available to both sides – the Allies verses the Central Powers – the Allies had over 42.9 million men compared to the Central Powers with 25.2 million. By anybody’s standards those are very large armies!

Compared to the other Allies, the United States ranked 5th in the total number of troops available. Russia came in first with 12 million men in uniform. Britain was second with 8.8 million troops. France was just behind the British with 8.6 million soldiers. Italy was next with 5.6 million men in the war. But when one considers how late the United States came into the conflict, one can only imagine how many men we could have put in uniform if it had been necessary. The point is, Germany and Austria-Hungary realized that the war could not be won once the Americans came into the conflict. Therefore, the last German offensive, called “Operation Michael,” came in the spring of 1918 and was launched in the hope that Germany could win the war before significant numbers of American troops arrived. The assault started in March 1918 and had failed by July 1918, when the Germans were pushed back to the points from which they had started.

What followed was an Allied counteroffensive called “The Hundred Days Offensive” which began in August 1918 and ended on November 11th – Armistice Day.

The tragic part of World War I, aside from the terrible loss of life, was that the Allied victory settled nothing and set the tragic course for the rest of the century. While few people under fifty know much about World War I, its repercussions can be felt all the way down to the present day, not counting the long string of wars that it produced, including World War II. The course of the 20th century was set by the outcome of the Great War. The Cold War tensions that lasted into the 1970s were a direct result of both world wars – the one world war that lasted from 1914 to 1945. When it was all over and two generations of Europe’s young men had been slaughtered, the Russians, who lost more soldiers and civilians than any other nation, were almost bound to become rivals of the United States for post-war control of Europe.

The development of even more terrible weapons of mass destruction was also a direct outgrowth of both wars and, in many respects, the natural evolution of the next phase of international power politics. So, it’s important to remember that it all started 100 years ago this year. More importantly, it’s important for today’s youth to have a basic understanding of the history of the last century and what can happen when people and nations forget the past. As the great philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

That’s –30—for this week.