The First World War
To many it feels like distant history. The jumpy black and white films, the unfamiliar clothes and the horses pulling wagons, all look like something from a world long forgotten. Yet the last soldiers who fought in the war have only recently died. A handful of the 1914–18 generation, who witnessed the war but were too young to take part, are still alive.
In August 2014 the world will mark the 100th ‘anniversary’ of the outbreak of the First World War. It called upon millions of men to fight in places many of them had never heard of before. It was a global struggle changing innumerable lives forever. The nature of modern warfare soon became clear. Nothing would ever be the same again.
New ways of fighting made better and more effective use of huge quantities of shells and bullets manufactured on a scale never seen before. Modern weapons rapidly caused heavy casualties and laid waste to whole communities. To illustrate, in the artillery barrage which opened the French attack on Chemin des Dames in April 1917, 11 000 000 shells were fired on a 30-mile front in 10 days. Three months later, on an 11-mile front at Passchendaele, the British fired 4 250 000 shells in a preliminary barrage costing them £ 22 000 000. It has been estimated by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the war destroyed over $ 400 000 000 000 of property at a time when the sum of the value of every object in France and Belgium was not worth over $ 75 000 000 000. It was a catastrophe of such magnitude that even today the imagination has some difficulty grasping it.
The First World War mobilized sixty-five million men. Over nine million soldiers died as a result of the fighting. Nearly six million civilians died from disease or starvation. Almost one million more were killed as a direct result of military operations. In all, over 16 million people died as a result of the war, 21 million were left wounded. It swept away the European continent’s ancient empires and turned Europe into what Czech politician Thomas Masaryk described as ‘a laboratory atop a vast graveyard’. Such rates of expenditure of men and wealth required a tremendous mobilization of resources throughout the world and had far-reaching effects on the patterns of thought and modes of action of people forced to undergo such a strain. There were profound modifications in finance, in economic life, in social relations, in intellectual outlook and emotional patterns.
No one expected the war to last for more than six months. Financial experts, while greatly underestimating the cost of fighting, were confident that the financial resources of all states would be exhausted in six months and supported this belief. They were referring to the gold reserves of the various nations, which were clearly limited. All the Great Powers were on the gold standard under which bank notes and paper money could be converted into gold on demand. However, each country suspended the gold standard at the outbreak of war. This removed the automatic limitation on the supply of paper money. Then each country proceeded to pay for the war by borrowing from the banks. These were no longer limited in the amount of credit they could create because they no longer had to pay out gold for checks on demand. Naturally, as governments borrowed to pay for their needs, private business borrowed in order to fill the government’s orders. Indeed, war can be a profitable business.
The old world order was irreparably damaged. Both the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires were destroyed. From their ashes a host of new countries emerged, in Europe and the Middle East. Russia was wracked by revolution and became the world’s first Communist state. Monarchies fell. A new world order emerged, with the United States developing a League of Nations that they then opted not to join. The consequences of many of these political changes can be heard today reverberating around the world. Three rival ideologies – liberal democracy, communism and fascism – saw itself destined to remake society, the continent and the world in a new order for mankind. The unremitting struggle between them to define modern Europe lasted for most of the 20th century.
The war is slipping inexorably beyond the fringes of living memory and, as the Centenary of 1914–18 approaches, we have to work harder to make sure we do not forget. If we want to understand today, we need to know and remember what happened yesterday.