Monday, August 4, 2014

100th Anniversary of The Great War

Photo: Members of the A.E.F 316th Engineers march into Ypres, Belgium. Taken by a soldier from Havre, Montana.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. On August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany.

The war was sure to be over by Christmas so men rushed to join up, to get in on the fun before it was over.

But that was before the battle of Marne. Before the first of the three major battles at Ypres. Before the first trenches were dug in September.

Christmas 1914 came and went. There was the 9-month horror of Gallipoli. The Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. The battle of Verdun took 700,00 lives and at the end of Battle of the Somme more than one million men were dead. 

The “little” war didn’t end for another four years. Men lived in filth and unimaginable conditions in deep trenches, dug in between fields of barbed wire and death and they died in horrifying numbers while gaining little ground. The United States entered in 1917 and in the remaining 18 months of the war we lost more than 100,000 men, almost half due to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. 

By the time peace was restored by the 1918 Armstice, parts of France and Belgium were a wasteland and more than 37 million men, women and children were dead due to injury, disease and starvation. Countless more were broken, "shellshocked" by the experience.

I’ve been reading The Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman’s Pulitzer prize-winning book on the events--the posturing, baiting, catastrophic bungling and arrogance of leaders--that brought about the beginning of the end of the world as it had been. A war that was so terrible, so brutal and, with the toxic combination of modern weaponry and archaic tactics, so inhumane, that by the time it ended an entire generation was lost. 

The book is fascinating. It’s well-researched and incredibly well written--Tuchman’s style is fluid and eloquent and her narrative brings the events leading up to the declarations of war on August 4, 1914 to life. 

But it is impossible to read it and not draw some chilling parallels to the modern political machinations in the headlines. Tyrants, bullies and zealots didn’t disappear when the trenches were filled. Before the ink was dry in 1918, the seeds of the next great war had been planted. And the wars that followed.

And here we are today, a century later, not much wiser. 

History is fascinating but what it ultimately reveals about human nature is discouraging.  To some, power alone is never enough. They want a war.  They need a war. The lesson that never seems to stick is that no one ever really wins a war, not even the victor. 

Here it is, another August, 100 years after the First World War. Just a few weeks ago we marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, another series of epic battles in another part of France during the Second World War. And yet dangerous lines are still being drawn in the sand, secret alliances are being formed and deals are still being struck behind closed doors. 

I’ve had to put the book down for a few days. I needed a breath of fresh air because every word reminds me that even as we make history, we never seem to let it teach us anything.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

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