On November 11, 1918, the guns of World War I officially fell silent.
After four years of barbaric fighting, and a catastrophic death toll of over 16 million, the war finally ended. And yet in a freak accident on March 19, 2014 – 100 years after the start of the war – two Belgian workers were killed by a WWI bomb that exploded in Flanders Fields. This extraordinary and tragic twist of fate serves as a grim reminder of the terrible destruction of the war. And a timely reminder as well because this August is officially the World War I Centenary, with many events being held worldwide to commemorate the outbreak of what is known as The Great War.
The Centenary has gathered a lot of attention, especially in England. In all previous years, English citizens have remembered WWI by wearing the iconic red poppy as a sign of respect for the soldiers who died fighting. This year, however, the remembrance will be on a much larger scale with lectures, exhibitions, tours, performances, and workshops.
But why are we commemorating this event – why does it matter? It matters because World War I shows how quickly seemingly minor events can lead to drastic unintended consequences. In 1914, ethnic unrest was rampant in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Gavrilo Princip, a member of a militant Serbian nationalist group named the Black Hand, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Austria decided to retaliate by taking action against Serbia who in turn were supported by Russia. Almost by accident, Europe fell into a brutal war that engulfed the entire continent and would rage for the next four years. It should concern us therefore when we see how quickly the ethnic unrest in Ukraine and Russia’s recent invasion of Crimea has resulted in dangerous and escalating tensions with the United States and the West, producing a scene that can seem frighteningly like the summer of 1914.
In fact, understanding World War I is important because many of the issues we are confronting today actually have their roots in this conflict.
For example, World War I led to the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, which ultimately caused the 50-year Cold War with the U.S. From this arose economical and political issues that are still impacting us today.
And World War I ushered in the beginning of a new era of intense involvement in global affairs by the United States. The decisive entry of the U.S. in World War I marked the start of a deep involvement in European and global affairs that has persisted and grown to this day, with U.S. bases all over the world and international commitments to protect countries across Europe and Asia. Our military involvement in Afghanistan and many other parts of the world has roots in our decisive role in World war I and then, only 20 years later, in World War II. We should keep in mind that many Americans not much older than ourselves bear the burden of these responsibilities.
Even the Israel Palestine conflict that has endured for over seventy years and claimed the lives of thousands has its origins in World War I with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
All wars bring about death and destruction, but World War I was the first war to truly reveal the devastating impact of weapons of mass destruction. With the invention of chemical warfare, machine guns, long-range artillery, and air warfare, for the first time the world witnessed a war with casualty levels in the many millions. When we read about the proliferation of infinitely greater weapons in Asia and the Middle East, we should pay attention because it means that any conflict in these regions risks being that much more devastating.
But most of all a key lesson to be learned from World War I is this: since the end of the Cold War in 1989, we in the West have been living in a mainly peaceful world, but we should keep in mind that peace is never guaranteed. As we have seen most recently, Crimea was invaded and annexed by Russian forces virtually overnight. If we look towards the East, we see increasing hostility between China and its neighboring countries in the South China Sea and threatening actions by North Korea. As we have seen in World War I, miscalculations can lead to dangerous and unintended consequences that can quickly spiral out of control.
The World War I Centenary does matter. We are a generation who have a lot to be thankful for, and much that we take for granted. So in this Centenary we should remember World War I to be thankful and out of respect for the millions of soldiers and innocent civilians who died in The Great War. Many of these soldiers were only in their late teens – the same age as we are now. They were attending school, just like us. Suddenly they were sent away to battlefields, into the trenches and straight to their death. An entire generation of youth lost and scarred. By comparison, for many of us, little sacrifice is asked. Our “problems” if we are honest with ourselves can be relatively small and insignificant. That is why we should not forget the young men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their countries. They had dreams and aspirations of a better future – just like us. Perhaps the least that we can do is reflect on that.
“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”
– In Flanders Fields, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae.