Still re­mem­ber­ing the Great War

A ten­dency to for­get now just how long the suf­fer­ing of this war lasted, and how fu­tile was so much of the fight­ing

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL - David John­son

On this day 100 years ago the First World War en­tered its 1190th day. News re­ports showed that Bri­tish and Cana­dian troops re­pulsed Ger­man counter-at­tacks along the Menin Road and at Pass­chen­daele, that the Ital­ians were giv­ing ground along the Brenta, that the Aus­tri­ans had cap­tured Cis­mon and that the Bri­tish had ad­vanced to within three miles of Jaffa.

And in Rus­sia the Bol­she­viks were se­cur­ing their hold on power in Pet­ro­grad while there was bit­ter street fight­ing in Moscow cost­ing some 4,000 lives.

The “War to end War” dragged on, seem­ingly war with­out end. As 1917 headed to a close there was fear on all sides that the war might be lost.

In Ger­many and Aus­tria-Hun­gary there was fear that the Western al­lies, with the sup­port of the Amer­i­cans, would over­whelm the Cen­tral Pow­ers be­fore the Ger­mans could strike a de­ci­sive blow against the French and Bri­tish Em­pire troops be­fore the Amer­i­cans made their mil­lion-man army felt.

In Bri­tain and France there was fear that the Ger­mans, wit­ness­ing the col­lapse of Rus­sia into revo­lu­tion and an­ar­chy, would move most of their army to the Western Front in order to de­liver a crush­ing blow be­fore the Amer­i­can army could shoul­der its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

In Rus­sia chaos reigned, Italy seemed beaten, the Turks were los­ing their em­pire but Tur­key it­self had yet to be in­vaded, the Aus­troHun­gar­ian Em­pire teetered on the brink of col­lapse and star­va­tion rav­aged Ger­many. There were still 361 days to go. We tend to for­get now just how long the suf­fer­ing of this war lasted, and how fu­tile was so much of the fight­ing. The year 1917 had wit­nessed the Cana­dian vic­tory at Vimy Ridge in April, and the even­tual cap­ture, by the Cana­dian Corps, of Pass­chen­daele in early Novem­ber.

To­tal Cana­dian ca­su­al­ties at Vimy Ridge num­bered 3, 598 dead and 7,004 wounded. At Pass­chen­daele the “Butcher’s Bill” was even steeper, with over 4,000 Cana­di­ans killed and some 12,000 wounded. Most of these losses came in just two weeks of heavy com­bat.

By the time the Cana­di­ans fi­nally cap­tured Pass­chen­daele on Nov. 6, the once quaint Bel­gian vil­lage was noth­ing but muddy ru­ins. And then, come the fol­low­ing spring, dur­ing the great Ger­man of­fen­sive of 1918, all this ter­ri­tory was re­cap­tured by the Ger­mans.

1917 was a bru­tal year in a bru­tal war. It marked, in the words of Bri­tish mil­i­tary his­to­rian John Kee­gan, the “break­ing of armies.” In a war of at­tri­tion also marked by pig­headed stu­pid­ity by so many se­nior gen­er­als on all sides, there comes a time when sol­diers and peo­ples can no longer take the strain.

These times be­gan to be wit­nessed in 1917. First in Rus­sia, in the spring, with the ad­vent of revo­lu­tion, then in France, in April, with great mu­tinies sweep­ing the French army. War weari­ness also be­gan to plague the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­ans and the Ger­mans. By the fall of 1917 Italy was on the brink of col­lapse and Bri­tish Em­pire forces were no longer able to main­tain their com­ple­ments of men with or with­out con­scrip­tion.

“As 1917 headed to a close there was fear on all sides that the war might be lost.”

If 1917 had a de­ci­sive mo­ment, and it did, it was not the Cana­dian vic­tory at Vimy on April 9, but the Amer­i­can en­try into the war on April 6. It was on that date that the al­lies were guar­an­teed a mil­lion­man U.S. army en­ter­ing the fray; num­bers the Cen­tral pow­ers could not match.

It is al­to­gether fit­ting and proper to re­mem­ber the sac­ri­fices made by Cana­di­ans, men and women, both on the war and home fronts. These peo­ple lived through a world-wide catas­tro­phe that few of us today can even imag­ine. Our mod­ern un­der­stand­ing of war was very much forged in the cru­cible of the Great War.

The ul­ti­mate tragedy of that war was that its puni­tive plan for peace, the Treaty of Ver­sailles, set the stage for the next great one. Lest we for­get.

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