Tuesday, November 11, 2008

This Day: The End of The Great War

On this day in 1918 the First World War came to an anti-climactic halt. The Germans had not been defeated, per se, rather, their last great concerted attempt to smash allied defenses exhausted itself in its success: the German Army had made great gains but was disorganized, overstretched, and exhausted. The introduction of the United States Expeditionary force under General Pershing had tipped the uneasy balance in favor of the Allies, and as the tide began to turn against the Kaiser's forces, this armistice was agreed upon.

The war on the Western Front, which is all most of us are familiar with, was only part of this truly global war. The German Army had conquered vast tracts of land from the Russian Empire, including all of Poland, and the Tzar had fallen in consequence. The Russian Revolution had ushered the Bolsheviks into power in 1917, and expeditionary forces from western powers had already been sent to quash socialist revolution. The failure of these operations meant the rise of the Soviet Empire: a defining element of the twentieth century.

It is difficult to fully conceive of the centrality of the First World War to our lives even today. It totally upset the old world order, spelling the beginning of the end of Euoropean Imperialism, creating national homelands for Poles, Chzechs, and Slavs, and marking the rise of Japan and the United States as great world powers. Attempts to establish world peace in its wake also resulted in the first tentative steps towards global governance with the establishment of The League of Nations. Unprecedented movement of peoples and armies resulted in the spread of diseases, most horribly influenza, which further devastated the old order.

Of course, in hindsight, both the ambitions of those who made peace, and the failures of those who tried to win the war only created an untenable three-way truce between Revolutionary Communism, Western Democracy and defeated German Nationalist Militarism, which was to rise again under Fascism.

Paul Fussell has written the book to put the war into context for the ways in which it changed the very warp and woof of culture: The Great War and Modern Memory. The poetry of the war poets, Siegfried Sassoon, et al. created the consciousness of the absurdity of the war that also became an indispensible part of how the twentieth century, perhaps the most ideoligcal in history, was to understand itself, both in the deficiency of traditional king-and-country 19th century nationalism to justify the unprecendted loss of life, and in the necessity for totally new ways of organizing society and understanding history.

The TimesOnline has this interesting counter factual analysis of what might have happened if the Britsh Commander, Haig, had gotten his way and essentially granted Germany a conditional victory.

image: A Battery Shelled, Percy Wyndham Lewis, 1919, thanks to the Imperial War Museum.