World War I Epilogue - A World Without War?
author Paul Boșcu, August 2018
'Sooner or later, Germany will be starved and beaten. Austria will be resolved into its component parts. England has always won in the end.' - Minister for Munitions Winston Churchill
Taking into account all the countries across the globe, it is estimated that just under 9,722,000 soldiers died through military action in the war. In addition, roughly 21 million were injured. These figures do not really take into account the mentally traumatised, ranging from shell-shocked men who would never be sane again to the millions suffering from what we would now recognize as PTSD. The figures also fail to consider the civilians killed by the war – approximately 950,000 who died from direct military action, but also a shocking 5,893,000 civilians who died from the impact of war-related famine and disease. These statistics are sobering indeed.

Over the four years and three months of war, around 2 million German soldiers died for the Central Powers, along with 1,100,000 Austro-Hungarians, 770,000 Turks and 87,500 Bulgarians. For the Entente, around 2 million Russians died, together with 1,400,000 French, 1,115,000 from the British Empire, 650,000 Italians, 250,000 Romanians and 116,000 Americans.

Germany had been at the very heart of the Great War. An unfortunate combination of bellicosity and inept diplomacy had left Germany facing war on two fronts. The military establishment, as represented by the Chief of General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke (the Younger), had staked everything on the gamble that in 1914 the superbly trained and disciplined German Army could swiftly defeat France and then use its central communications to move its armies over to smash the Russians in the east. In the end the gamble failed and the Germans were defeated.

In September 1914, the Battle of the Marne demonstrated that France would not be quickly defeated – the gamble had failed. With that failure, as Moltke the Elder and Alfred von Schlieffen would both have recognized, Germany was almost certainly doomed to defeat. The addition of the British and Americans to the list of Germany’s enemies only made matters more certain.

The legacy of the war weighed heavily on American President Woodrow Wilson, but it also changed the world. Some regions of Europe, particularly northwestern France and Belgium, lay in devastated ruin from battles, with whole towns and villages entirely destroyed. Returning veterans included not only the physically wounded but millions whose psychological scars would never heal. Troubled by nightmarish flashbacks to the scenes of horror they had witnessed, many veterans in all the combatant nations could not participate normally in social and economic life. As late as the 1970s, for people who lived through the experience, the expression ‘before the War’ meant ‘before 1914’.

Even for those who had not fought in the war but who had only witnessed the conflict as noncombatant ambulance drivers, journalists, or even as civilians at home, the horrors of the war left lasting scars. The slaughter had been so widespread and grotesque, and its reasons so illogical and incomprehensible, that a whole generation in Europe and the United States saw the war itself as the most significant event of their lives.

For Americans and Europeans alike, the war represented the dividing line between a past gone forever and an unfamiliar new order. That new order disturbed and pained some, while to others it represented a liberation or release from constraints. For many of the younger generation, the war freed them from a set of values they called variously ‘Victorian’, ‘Puritan’, or ‘bourgeois’.

In America, a whole generation seemed disillusioned with the Wilsonian ideals, and that disillusionment lay at the heart of the sense of departure from the past in the United States. When Wilson rode away from the White House on the inauguration of Warren Harding in March 1921, it seemed that Wilson’s ideas and ideals went with him into the cold.

In 1929 Erich Maria Remarque published Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front), a book which at a stroke revived the by-then flagging market for war literature. Within a year Remarque’s book was translated into twenty-eight languages, sold nearly 4 million copies, and became an Academy Award winning film. And yet it was less about the war than about the problems of a generation unable to reintegrate itself into post-war society. Its message was one of shattered illusions.

If there was a futility in the Great War, it was not the actions of the Entente in countering German aggression, but rather the futility of Germany trying to provoke, fight and win a war in circumstances that always militated against success. This is not to say that the Entente were blameless. France and Russia had their own motives for going to war and did little to sidestep it, while all three members of the Triple Entente were aggressive imperialist colonial powers seeking to consolidate everything they held and make further gains wherever possible.

The war did have its causes and the Great Powers certainly had their deadly grievances that they felt unable to settle without recourse to arms. It was in truth a violent world. The prevalence of colonialism, the repression of minorities, the placid acceptance of inequalities and the overall belief that might was right – all these global traits tended towards the continued acceptance of war as a legitimate means of pursuing policy.

The First World War broke the empires of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. It triggered the Russian Revolution and provided the bedrock for the Soviet Union; it forced a reluctant United States onto the world stage and gave liberalism a new lease of life. On Europe’s edge, it provided only a temporary solution to the ambitions of the Balkan nations. Outside Europe it laid the seeds for the conflict in the Middle East. In short it shaped not just Europe but the world in the twentieth century. It was emphatically not a war without meaning or purpose.

The French Army was of paramount importance to the Entente, particularly in the first two years of the war. In 1916 they withstood the ultimate German challenge at Verdun, a battle that truly plumbed the depths of human misery. The French fought on, playing a significant part in the Battle of the Somme, before the failure of the Nivelle offensive in April 1917 triggered mutinies. Yet even this debacle did not mark the end: they made a solid contribution during the Third Battle of Ypres later in 1917 and helped prop up the British line during the German Spring Offensives of 1918. Then they rebuffed the final German summer assaults before launching the first of the counterattacks that ultimately would win the war.

They stood up to the brunt of the German assault in 1914, paying a phenomenal price in blood that should never be forgotten. In 1915, time and time again, they smashed against the German lines on the Western Front, testing them to the utmost and exploring the strange new language of modern warfare.

In 1918 they may not have taken the foremost lead, but were still fighting hard, still crucial to Entente success – and after all in Foch they provided the Supreme Commander. Without a knowledge of what the French were doing and suffering, the British role and actions are quite simply incomprehensible. The two armies were linked by a common front and a common enemy, and had the same terrible challenges to overcome. This was coalition warfare.

The Russian role is also sometimes downplayed, masked by their ultimate defeat and the sullen acrimony of the post-war years. But from 1914 to 1917 the Russians fought hard, rebounding time and time again from shocking defeats, along the way bludgeoning the Austro-Hungarians almost to the point of defeat and forcing the Germans to deploy ever more troops to the Eastern Front.

The resilience of the Russians made the two-front war an unshakeable reality for the Germans. The ultimate Russian collapse and defeat was a result of the inherent contradictions of the Russian state, but it came too late for the Germans to really capitalize on the opportunity.

During 1917-18 many Russian units dissolved spontaneously because peasant soldiers went home to ensure they did not miss out on land redistribution resulting from the break-up of the landlords' estates. Others left because they saw no point in staying, illustrating the difficulty of obtaining national unity in a very large country. In the 1904-05 war with Japan, Russian observers complained that only soldiers from east of Lake Baikal took the war seriously; conversely, in 1917-18 the Siberian regiments were the first to leave the front, on the grounds that 'the Germans won't be coming to Siberia'.

The Italians took a gamble and joined the war with an eye to the possible territorial gains that victory would bring. Their motives may have been questionable, but they fought hard and, in the end, completed the demolition of the Austrians begun by Russia.

There were Entente fronts, pre-eminently the Italian, which were largely sustained by the army of one nation, but that army sustained its legitimacy by acting in conformity with its own national objectives. Indeed that was the Entente’s recurring problem with Italy: it timed its offensives to suit its own needs, not those of achieving unity of effect in space and time. The collapse at Caporetto created the opportunity to integrate Italy’s efforts with those on other fronts.

The Americans arrived late in the war but had an enormous impact. They left the Germans with little or no realistic hopes of victory, forcing the last gamble of the Spring offensives. Like the British, the Americans were totally unprepared for a continental war and were unconscionably slow in deploying troops in significant numbers. But, by the summer of 1918, they were in situ, slowly learning the brutal art of modern war. After initial problems they proved adept pupils. The AEF would have been the dominant force had the war stretched into 1919.

The Americans buried their dead, built their monuments, and went home (not in quite that order). They then forgot entirely about the war. The War Department spent the next seven years doing a disappearing act on the casualties, and did so with such success that few Americans realized the magnitude of either the losses or the victories. But then the Americans had other problems. As one returning veteran remarked rather ruefully, ‘We went to war to save democracy and got back home only to find we couldn’t get anything to drink.’

We are left with the British role which was surely crucial: indeed Britain’s very involvement in the war was a sickening blow to German hopes of victory. At a stroke, the oceans of the globe became an Entente domain. For the first two years of the war the British military involvement on land was largely symbolic, before the gradual mobilization of the Empire brought millions of troops to the battlefield.

By 1918 the BEF attained a more pivotal role: still large enough to have a real impact, but also polished in the deadly tactics of the ‘All Arms Battle’ and driven on to act as the spear point of the Entente armies on the Western Front. Their time had come, but the victory nevertheless was a collective one, based on the struggle and sacrifice of all the allied nations during more than four years of unremitting war.

The French and Belgian governments tried to make plans for the next war. The plan finally adopted bore a curious resemblance to the one from the 1870s: given France’s losses, and the loss of confidence in the army, the best way to defend France was through building more fortifications. Thus the Maginot line was born, a series of fortifications built to protect France from a future German invasion. The Belgians strengthened their defenses by building Eben Emael, at the time the most modern fortification in the world. In the next war these measures would prove to be very ineffective, due to changing realities in the nature of warfare.

Although generally seen as a sign of French defeatism and despair, this was a logical response which took into account what had happened during the war itself. The French General Staff had gutted the defense system Séré de Rivières had constructed, partly on the basis of false information about what had happened to the forts themselves. But by 1923 enough studies had been done to establish that, other than a few basic problems in design, the reason the system had failed was that it had not actually been used.

As did France, so did Belgium: the Liège fortifications were expanded by the addition of a great new fort, which commanded the Meuse crossing just three kilometers to the north of where the Germans had crossed in 1914. Eben Emael, completed in 1935, was the most modern fortification in the world. The Belgians had corrected their mistakes as thoroughly as had the French. Belgian officers who went through the newly completed fort were convinced it was invulnerable.

At dawn on 11 May 1940, seventy-eight soldiers from the German Seventh Airborne Division landed on the Belgian fort by glider. They were armed with a fearsome new weapon, shaped charge explosives in fifty-kilogram bundles, and promptly blew enormous holes in the turrets. The fort was out of commission in twenty-eight hours.

It is has often been contended that Germany was not really defeated in the Great War, but that her heroic armed services were somehow ‘stabbed in the back’ by revolutionary factors or other mysterious forces. This theme was widely used by the Nazis in the 1920s and 30s in order to gain political capital. This is utter nonsense. Rarely has a nation been so comprehensively defeated in the field as Germany was in 1918. Her armies were reeling back and were totally unable to defend the German frontier. Her allies, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria, had all been brought to their knees. There was no hope anywhere for Germany: this was a total defeat writ large.

Crossing the Rhine might have been a problem for the Entente, but their bombardment techniques coupled with the mass use of new and ever more deadly gases would have been the decisive factors, not appeals to national pride. Once across there would have been no way of holding them. And every month would have meant more American divisions arriving on the Western Front.

At sea the Germans were bottled up. Their submarines had been overwhelmed by the convoy system and the High Seas Fleet had mutinied. In the air the German pilots were fighting bravely, but were severely outnumbered and fast running out of aviation fuel.

Despite its defeat, Germany manufactured its own feeling of victory out of the war. Ludendorff’s determination in 1917 to separate the demoralization at home from the motivation of those at the front fed directly into the post-war argument that the German army had not been defeated in the field. It still stood deep in enemy territory on all fronts when it laid down its arms. The British blockade, and the claim that it had reduced the civilian population to starvation, fitted in with the argument that the army had been stabbed in the back by the revolution at home.

After the Armistice, the German state fell apart. Nominally a republic, its Army had almost ceased to exist, the units fragmenting once they crossed the German border as the men simply went home. This left a dangerous power vacuum. The political factions of the left soon fragmented, and when the Communists took to the streets during the Spartacist Uprising of January 1919, they were countered with devastating brutality by unofficial Freikorps made up of ex-servicemen, bound together by their military past and an unswerving adherence to right-wing politics.

Germany was in a desperate state, still ravaged by hunger, plagued by revolution, threatened by armed gangs and suffering the demoralizing after-effects of the loss of some 2 million young men killed during the war. To survive, the fledgling government headed by Friedrich Ebert had to compromise itself to gain the support of the Freikorps and the remnants of the regular Army. Against this background the economy, strained beyond reason by the war, continued to freefall, with most of the stringent provisions of the Entente blockade still in place.

By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the German Weimar Republic was already in dire trouble. Racked by raging inflation and economic turmoil, the Weimar Republic would spend the 1920s torn apart by competing visions of left and right-wing ideologues, all peddling their different visions of the future designed to have mass appeal. In the end it would be the right that won, with the advent of Hitler and the Nazi Party. And so the wheel of history turned again.

When the protracted Paris peace negotiations finally came to the crunch decisions, the Germans realized that they would be shown no leniency by the Entente, whose leaders were intent on exacting their pound of flesh. The war reparations, the loss of Polish territory and Alsace-Lorraine, the humiliating occupation forces – all would be enforced when the Treaty of Versailles was finally signed.

The Russians, too, had been set on a new and challenging course by the Great War. The tyranny of the Tsars had been usurped by the Bolsheviks and the advent of the Communist state. After the war several of the Entente states intervened to assist the counter-revolutionary forces. The Soviets felt themselves attacked from all sides and became afflicted by a defensive and harshly repressive outlook which corrupted any lingering hopes for a more democratic future for the Russian people. The damage done would endure for the best part of the twentieth century.

With Soviet Russia separated on ideological grounds from Britain and France, the Great War Allies were unable to act in collaboration to thwart the re-emergence of Germany as a great European power under the Nazi regime in the 1930s – a failure that would have terrible consequences.

For Russia the major consequence was the creation of the Soviet Union. A bitter civil war resulted in the replacement of a self-proclaimed autocracy by an autocracy, then an oligarchy, that both claimed to be democratic and socialist, and of a self-proclaimed empire by an empire that claimed to be the arch-enemy of empires. Stalin's autocracy would prove far more oppressive than that of Nicholas II, but also much more efficient at harnessing the nation's resources and industrializing its economy.

Italy had suffered losses in battle of 600,000 dead and had high hopes of reward from the Entente. These were soon dashed; apart from a grudging grant of some Austrian territory there were to be no gifts of ex-German colonies. Britain and France did not feel generous toward Italy, which was plagued by social and political turmoil after the war. It was in this context that the rise of fascism and Benito Mussolini took place, who formed a government in 1922.

Political chaos took over in Italy as socialists, smarting under national humiliation and faced by the forces of conservatism and the Church, split into new factions. The new man was Benito Mussolini, who took advantage of the situation to launch his Fascist party, which took power in Milan in 1922, then marched on Rome where King Victor Emmanuel invited Mussolini to form a government.

The combined effect of the Treaties of Saint-Germain (10 September 1919), Neuilly (27 November 1919) and Trianon (4 June 1920) was the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, this and the partial loss of territory by the Soviet Union did not resolve the complex nationalistic tensions festering in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Some would never be resolved, resulting in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.

The proclamation of the Austrian Republic on 13 November 1918 spelled the end for the Habsburgs and was immediately followed by the proclamations of the Hungarian Republic and the United Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. With the drastic curtailment of her borders, Austria became a landlocked German state. Cut off from its previous sources of raw materials and hedged by vengeful tariff barriers imposed by the victors, the young republic was no longer a sound economic entity and unrest soon spread.

The Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, who fired the fatal first shots at Archduke Ferdinand, never lived to see the brave new world he had helped trigger. Too young to be executed, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison, where he contracted tuberculosis and died on 28 April 1918.

The emerging countries, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia; the defeated countries, such as Hungary and Bulgaria; and the newly triumphant Italy, Romania and Greece – all found themselves in a state of flux surrounded by powerful enemies and often still containing aggrieved nationalistic minorities within their borders. The Balkans certainly remained a powder keg, but now Eastern Europe became equally unstable.

Old scores remained to be settled. The Serbs soon revived their efforts to bring Yugoslavia under their control, despite the ferocious resistance of Croats and Slovenes. Desperately trying to bring a measure of stability, King Alexander imposed a dictatorship in 1929; it brought temporary relief but still left the Serbs in a powerful position. He was assassinated at Marseilles in 1934 by a member of one of the dissident minorities.

Chaos prevailed in Albania through the 1920s until President Ahmed Bey Zogu proclaimed himself king as Zog I. Striving to modernize his realm, he was making reasonable progress until April 1939 when an Italian invasion forced him into exile.

The political infighting in Greece between King George II and premier Venizelos continued for years. Greece lurched unsteadily from kingship to republicanism, an uneasy truce prevailing between Venizelos, the dedicated nationalist, and his king. The prime minister was not finally ousted until 1928 after an unexpected electoral rout, and he died in exile in 1936, following the return of George II to the throne.

The prostrate remnants of the Ottoman Empire witnessed a feeding frenzy from the colonial empires. After the war the web of conflicting agreements led to almost everyone being disappointed and provoked many bitter – and vengeful – accusations of bad faith. In essence, the British and French continued to pursue their own long-term colonial aims, freed from competition from Russia. The result was the birth of many of the Middle East problems that exist to this very day, not just over the question of Jewish or Arab control of Palestine/Israel, but also over the arbitrary nature of the borders drawn for Iraq, Syria and Turkey. This is all part of the grim legacy of the Great War.

During the war the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement had been signed on 16 May 1916 between Britain, France and Russia, which envisioned dividing the spoils. It was a treaty that defined the ambitious war aims of the three powers, but it also oversimplified the political agreements being made with various other parties in the Middle East. In particular, promises had been made to establish both an Arab state and a Zionist independent Jewish state in Palestine. None of these promises came true.

According to the Sykes-Picot Agreement the British would get protectorates or control of parts of Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq (Mesopotamia); the French would get Lebanon, Syria, south-east Turkey and northern Iraq; while Russia was promised – at last – Constantinople and control of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles Straits, in addition to parts of western Armenia. The rise of Soviet Russia nullified the agreement in regards to the Russian state.

With the advent of the more high-toned American influence, there was some back-tracking, with the Anglo-French Agreement on 7 November 1918 promising the establishment of indigenous governments in Syria and Mesopotamia. This would prove to have been mainly for public consumption.

The British and French finished the war in a seemingly impregnable position, whereby they appeared to have it all. Their main enemy, Germany, had been stamped down, while the old enemy, Russia, was in a state of turbulent flux. It is true that they made considerable colonial gains in Africa, the Pacific and the Middle East. Yet the war would prove the high tide for both the old empires. At first nothing much seemed to have changed: both were still energetic in pushing forward their imperial and colonial claims, and were aggressive in their dealings with smaller powers who got in their way. Yet behind the facade, the imperial structures were crumbling away.

‘So the old pirate state, England, has again succeeded in letting Europe tear herself to pieces, and by throwing in her own power and applying the most brutal methods, she has secured a victory which accords with her material interests. The liberty and independence of the people of the European continent has now vanished and the bloom of their civilization is perhaps destroyed forever. But England’s day of judgment will have its birth in this very success.’ These were the prophetic words of Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, after the war.

Ground down by their losses, and suffering dire economic problems in consequence of the unbelievable sums expended during the war, the British were soon losing their grip. And an old enemy would rise again under a new guise. Survival had been the Soviets’ initial priority, but later the promulgation of Communist revolution around the world would prove an entirely different threat to the stumbling colonial empires. The Second World War confirmed and accelerated this process of decline. The Cold War sealed the fate for Britain’s and France’s last colonial ambitions.

In Britain and France, war-weariness, emphasized by the literature of disillusionment in the late 1920s and early 1930s and intensified by economic slump and mass unemployment, encouraged appeasement and weakened national resolve to resist Adolf Hitler's ambitions until it was too late to prevent another cataclysmic conflict.

The United States remained aloof from the League of Nations, but nevertheless, even in its isolation the nation still echoed with the political, social, and cultural changes brought by the war. With autocratic and dictatorial regimes flourishing in Europe, Wilson’s goals and words seemed hollow and naïve. Those who had favored joining the League were disappointed with the failure of the Senate to approve the treaty and the covenant; those who opposed it believed the continuing conflicts in Europe demonstrated only that, if the United States had joined, it would have been immersed in entangling alliances and the further sacrifice of American military lives for foreigners’ ambitions.

Politically, American idealists and liberals found their message had been perverted, their liberties suppressed and replaced by a strident and sometimes mindless patriotic nationalism by the very regime they had elected during the war. The censorship, suppression of civil liberties, and arrest of leaders such as Eugene Debs resulted in the left’s becoming even more disillusioned in and alienated from the American political scene.

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer organized a series of simultaneous raids on socialist, Bolshevik, and anarchist political offices and homes on November 1919, and then, in January 1920, in an even wider sweep, officials arrested some 2,700 individuals. This manifestation of an official clampdown on radical thought led to the deportation from the United States of 249 foreign-born radicals, some of whom had become naturalized U.S. citizens. Palmer hoped to deport all the others arrested, and, after a series of hearings arranged by the Labor Department, the government deported a total of 600 more.

Although progressives had won their objectives of woman suffrage and Prohibition through constitutional amendments, the women’s vote appeared to split much as the male vote had done, although in elections throughout the 1920s, women in most of the country went to the polls in lower percentages than did men. Through the decade, women activists remained divided over whether to push for a broader Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution to guarantee equality in all spheres of public life or to simply work on using the right to vote.

Prohibition, although it succeeded in reducing access to alcohol by the poor, led to a crime wave as smugglers, bootleggers, and speakeasy operators profited from supplying illegal beer and liquor to those who could afford their prices. The two constitutional amendments, the Eighteenth and Nineteenth, which represented the achievement of specific Progressive goals, had the ironic effect of converting many of the activists who had fought for those changes into conservatives dedicated only to preserving the status quo, which now included votes for women and the prohibition of alcohol.

Together, Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover represented a 12-year conservative Republican regime dedicated to supporting big business, opposing organized labor, restricting immigration, and adopting only moderate programs to help preserve the status quo. These Republican presidents and their supporters called their administration The New Era, but the term smacked of considerable irony, for their opponents believed that Republicans looked backward, not forward, for the model for their policies. For the most part, the three Republican presidents of the 1920s did not take an aggressive stand on either domestic or foreign policy.

America in the 1920s took an isolationist stance. Despite the refusal of the United States to become involved in the League, the legacy of World War I left important issues in the realm of international affairs that the Republican administrations of the era could not entirely ignore. The United States became heavily involved in a series of international conferences devoted to limitations on armaments, beginning with the Washington Naval Conference that took place in 1921-22, followed by one in Geneva in 1927 and another in London in 1930.

Ironically, the advocates of isolation and disarmament had to take the position of demanding that the administration enter into international agreements to get other leading naval powers to reduce their expenditures on ships. The only way to be isolated required diplomatic engagement, it appeared. Senator William Borah took the lead in demanding an agreement that would reduce the naval budgets of Britain, France, and the United States by 50 percent. Arrayed against Borah and the isolationists, pro-navalists feared that Japan could represent a threat to American interests in the Pacific.

Faced with isolationists demanding a reduction in the American navy and navalists fearing a threat from Japan, President Harding issued an invitation to Britain, Japan, France and Italy to a meeting in Washington to discuss both naval disarmament and affairs in the Far East. The parties compromised on the limitations on ships and signed several collateral agreements regarding Japanese holdings in Asia and the Pacific, as well as recognition of the right of Japan to retain several specific ships.

And what of the performance of the generals in the Great War? They had tried their best, many of them quickly making complex tactical changes, incorporating huge technical developments into their plans and all the while training, deploying and maintaining the morale of millions of men in this most dreadful of wars. Some generals failed utterly, their reputations shattered by their own innate conservatism, personal flaws or sheer stupidity. But these were in the minority; most generals coped as well as could be expected. The exercise of command in battle was a terrifyingly complex business.

Some of the German generalship was also outstanding: ingenious and intuitive, aggressive and brutally simple, boldly heroic and sensibly cautious – there were many different ways to win a battle. Certainly Falkenhayn, Ludendorff, Mackensen and many others all had sustained periods of brilliance in the field. In fact, all the Central Powers countries had competent and sometimes inspirational generals.

Douglas Haig put it neatly: ‘To direct attention to any single phase of that stupendous and incessant struggle and seek in it the explanation of our success, to the exclusion or neglect of other phases possibly less striking in their immediate or obvious consequences, is in my opinion to risk the formation of unsound doctrines regarding the character and requirements of modern war.’

The British, French and Russians had great generals, too: the indomitable Haig, with his undying faith in the proper application of modern weapons yoked to his driving role in establishing the ‘All Arms’ battle; Joffre, the victor of the Marne; Brusilov, the outstanding innovator; and, of course, Foch – the man there at the beginning and the man still standing as Supreme Commander at the end.

In the miserable aftermath of the Great War there was a desperate search for scapegoats for all the suffering that had been endured. In Britain, the more devious politicians and their fawning commentators managed to transfer most of the responsibility onto the backs of their generals, culminating in the ‘lions led by donkeys’ construct.

Such post-war shenanigans should not distract attention from the fact that in the end Britain and her allies had emerged triumphant on the battlefields of the Great War: it was a painful victory, but a victory all the same. Whether it should be celebrated or mourned is for philosophers to decide.

War was not a straightforward progression towards success for the British or anyone else. In truth, the Entente eventually won on the battlefields because of a massive superiority in numbers and resources. It cannot be denied that the performance of the German Army was incredible; indeed, its soldiers fought with a sustained heroism and a high degree of military skill right to the end.

The First World War was a coalition war. Its intensity, its scale and its length were all the products of the alliances that sustained it. In 1918 one of the coalitions, that of the Central Powers, began to fall apart, but the other, that of the Entente, achieved a fusion, albeit flawed, which enabled it to wield greater military and economic power than any unit previously seen in the history of the world.

The Entente’s comparative strength rested on more than the sum of its resources. First, its principals were to a greater extent equals than were the Central Powers. That did not mean there were not great disparities of wealth between them: by 1918 America had the money, but France still had the biggest army and Britain the biggest navy.

The combined populations of the four Central Powers totalled 144 million in 1914; those of the principal Entente powers of 1918 (including their colonies) 690 million. However, economic potential and military capability were not the same. Turkey, despite its backwardness, twice defeated Britain in battle, and its military contribution to the war as a whole was greater than that of the United States.

During the war the phrase ‘The war to end all wars’ became popular in referring to the war that was ongoing. First coined by H.G. Wells, its proponents blamed German imperialism for starting the war and believed that defeating Germany was the only way to stop war. Unfortunately the Great War never was a war to end wars and proved an efficient catalyst in sowing the seeds for the numerous conflicts which have disfigured human history ever since. Within twenty-one short years the world would be at war again.

When war came, it was truly devastating as the impact of new weapons systems created a Gordian knot of static trench lines, while the development of logistics allied to new methods of transport allowed armies of millions to be kept in the field almost indefinitely. Whatever happened, it was always likely to be a long and terrible war – a never-ending nightmare for far too many.

World War I gave birth to a revanchist Germany, left with much of its industry intact and a bitter population that had heard the message of Ludendorff and other generals and admirals. These men had claimed in their memoirs and in their postwar support of the Nazi alternative that with only a better and more concentrated effort on the home front and a more thorough Prussianism, Germany could have won the war and could win the next. In Italy, Mussolini played on the sense of betrayal at Versailles, arguing that legitimate national aspirations had been stymied by Wilson and the other Allies.

Rather than ending wars, the Great War produced boundary readjustments and claims to self-determination across Europe and the Middle East that led directly to several bitter wars and appeared to set the stage for another world clash of the major powers. The consequences of the First World War in the east included the restoration of an independent Poland, the severance of East Prussia from the rest of Germany by the Polish Corridor, the independence of the three Baltic States and Finland, and the dismemberment of the Russian, Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. The settlement would in due course prove to have created more problems than it solved, because the new states mostly contained ethnic minorities and/or territories that could be subjects of irredentist claims by Germany or the Soviet Union.

In Britain and France, liberals seemed partially convinced that German and Italian claims of injustice in the territorial settlements had fair grounds and gave widespread support to the concept of offering adjustments that would appease the demands of German and Italian leaders. Thus in Europe, World War I clearly gave birth to a set of discontentments that would coalesce into World War II.

In Asia, many Japanese believed themselves empowered to replace the European colonial regimes in Southeast Asia and their control of China that had been exercised through the policy of spheres of influence, and, by the early 1930s, under an increasingly militant leadership, Japan had embarked on that course.

In the Mideast, the British and French struggled to maintain control of their mandates from the Ottoman Empire. However, Britain left Iraq after nearly a decade of insurgency in 1932 and used force to try to prevent wholesale Jewish settlement into Israel in the 1930s. The French continued to apply force to keep Syria subservient to French policy. The region remained ripe for struggles among the contending ethnic and religious groups and against the European colonial style of administration of the mandates, leaving a legacy that would simmer and boil over in the decades to come.

Liberal regimes in Europe and North America had adopted total-war methods: in Germany, Britain, France, and Russia traditions of economic liberalism and laissez faire gave way to statism; free-enterprise yielded to state control; and, in country after country, the total economy and population became dedicated, through laws and propaganda, to serving national interests.

While the transformation to state control that had begun in the war years started later and did not go so far in the United States as in Europe, even so, the Committee on Public Information, the U.S. Railway Commission, the Food Administration, and other federal agencies represented steps in the same direction.

After the war, in many countries, the appeal of state control of the economy and the public mind in the national interest continued to flourish. In the Soviet Union and Italy in particular, the change to a national regime based on such principles came within a few years, under the guise of Marxism-Leninism in the former and Fascism in the latter.

For Europeans and Americans, the war years represented the end of innocence, a transition from one cultural era to another. Defining that change was no simple matter, partly because of the diversity of reactions against the old order and partly because some of the intellectual and cultural trends that marked the 1920s had been under way well before the war. Across Europe and the Americas, new styles of art, architecture and music caught the flavor of a new era.

Many artists and authors frankly sought through their work to mark a sharp break with the past and its conventions. Painters, sculptors, graphic designers, musicians, cinematographers, playwrights, and commercial artists all moved in new directions, seemingly liberated from the rules and expectations of prewar styles in bursts of creativity that went in many directions. Some of their creations became classics, well-remembered, studied, and often emulated in later decades by appreciative future generations.

These sources of new thinking and rejection of past certitudes already flourished by 1913; the crises, disasters, and disillusionment of the war, however, did give a sharper psychological dividing line with the past and provided a ready audience for rebellion against old thinking. The war gave a whole generation deep and well-justified reasons to be skeptical about the wisdom of traditional political and military leadership, and that skepticism of authority spilled over into all realms of creative work.

World War I and its tragedies represented the end of many of the values and ideals of 19th-century Western civilization and brought in its wake decades of dictatorship and further war. However, a lasting and in the long run apparently positive legacy of World War I showed up in the surviving generation of the war, the creative rebels of the 1920s, who set the tone of modernity for the rest of the 20th century.

The Second World War irrevocably demonstrated that the First World War was not, after all, the war to end all wars. Liberalism’s comparative failure in the inter-war years was in large part due to its own fundamental decency. It lost the determination to assert itself in the internal politics of states that deviated from democratic norms. The issues of course did not present themselves in such clear-cut fashion. One reason why Adolf Hitler could appeal to the German people in 1933 was precisely because many genuinely convinced themselves that they had been wronged in 1919. But that in itself does not explain the Second World War.

Hitler was able to play back some of the themes of German popular mobilization in the First World War - the ideas of the Burgfrieden in 1914, the Fatherland Party’s appeal to national unity over party loyalty, OberOst’s notion of Germany’s mission in the east, the expectation that a Second Punic War might be necessary to complete the agenda of the First. Above all, the Kaiser’s failure as supreme warlord generated a belief that a real leader would have delivered a German victory.

In many ways the Second World War set terrible new benchmarks for horror. Yet somehow a more potent folk memory of the Great War lingers still – even now all the last active participants have died. The sense of tragedy, of futility, of a slaughter of the innocents: these sentiments still pervade our popular culture. The decimation of a generation is not forgotten. Meanwhile the problems left unsolved or created by that terrible conflagration persist to threaten the peace of the world to this very day.

Whatever the logical arguments, pointing to German culpability and the near-inevitability of this Armageddon, the fact that the Great War still has an enormous emotional impact cannot be denied. None of the warrior states may have been innocent, but the deaths and suffering imposed on their massed soldiery and citizenry cannot but evoke a human response.

The carefully tended war memorials, the continuing acts of remembrance and commemoration, the growing interest in visiting the battlefields; these all illustrate the way the Great War still resonates deeply even today.