Neil Earle won­ders if the First World War was an ‘unre­deemed fail­ure’?


“The First World War (1914-1918) changed ev­ery­thing,” writes Bri­tish his­to­rian Niall Fer­gu­son of Har­vard. The ef­fects of what Euro­peans call “The Great War” in Au­gust, 1914 —100 years ago this sum­mer — are al­ready be­ing ex­ca­vated and com­mem­o­rated.

Fall­out from that un­prece­dented clash of na­tions is with us still, most no­tably this sum­mer in the por­ous bound­aries ev­i­dent in the heart of the Mid­dle East in places such as Iraq, carved from the corpse of the old Ot­toman Em­pire.

“Dis­il­lu­sion” was Amer­i­can his­to­rian Bar­bara Tuch­man’s one-word sum­mary in her 1962 prize-win­ning “The Guns of Au­gust,” about a war of­ten billed as “the war to end war.” Yet Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy al­legedly pre­sented to his staff Tuch­man’s mas­ter­ful piece of his­tory to avoid the “trap” of war by lock-step in­evitabil­ity.

War through a sombre lens

One of the en­dur­ing lessons of 1914 was that the Great Pow­ers must not be drawn into third party con­flicts. I re­mem­ber telling one anx­ious young stu­dent of mine the week of the Amer­i­can-led in­va­sion of Iraq, “This is limited war. Great pow­ers are not fac­ing off against one an­other with all they have. Thank the Lord for that.”

Still, the well-re­mem­bered slaugh­ter of the New­found­land Reg­i­ment at Beau­mon­tHamel in July, 1916 has made us in the 10th prov­ince view the First World War through a sombre lens. In high school we learned how the French army lost 50,000 men to gain 500 yards of ter­ri­tory in Cham­pagne. A mil­lion French­men and Ger­mans even­tu­ally died in the strug­gle over the fron­tier fort at Ver­dun. These losses shook France to her foun­da­tions. In some ways she never has re­cov­ered.

Mo­men­tous, too, was the aftermath, the way the Sec­ond World War grew out of the first: Ger­many’s wounded pride, Amer­i­can dis­il­lu­sion­ment with “the war to end wars,” An­glo-French de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­main em­pires no mat­ter what, keep­ing the “game of na­tions” alive.

A bril­liant French jour­nal­ist, Ray­mond Aron, in a book called “The Century of To­tal War,” sketched the causes of the war with ad­mirable com­pres­sion. “The grow­ing ten­sion cen­tered about three prin­ci­pal dif­fi­cul­ties: the ri­valry be­tween Aus­tria and Rus­sia in the Balkans, the Franco-Ger­man con­flict over Morocco, and the arms race — on sea be­tween Bri­tain and Ger­many, and on land be­tween all the pow­ers. The two last causes had pro­duced the sit­u­a­tion; the first one kin­dled the spark.” (page 16)

Look­ing back, the con­se­quences Au­gust, 1914 were huge.

War un­leashed new prob­lems


Europe suf­fered the death of mil­lions of men in what seemed a lost cause. Civil war con­vulsed the new Soviet Union and an in­fluenza epi­demic in 1918-1919 killed 40 mil­lion around the world. All this in spite of gen­uine hero­ics such as the 10 sharpshooters from the New­found­land Reg­i­ment hold­ing the line at Monchy-le-Pruex for nine hours against hun­dreds of the en­emy on April 14, 1917.

In an ex­tra­or­di­nary ges­ture, all the pri­vates and non-coms in­volved re­ceived the Mil­i­tary Medal. It was, as Ed Roberts wrote in the Septem­ber, 2011 Car­bon­ear Com­pass, the reg­i­ment’s great­est vic­tory. That Novem­ber the reg­i­ment re­ceived the des­ig­na­tion “Royal” from King Ge­orge V, the only such unit to be so hon­oured in the field dur­ing the war.

Still, most felt that the war had only un­leashed new prob­lems. A hard new cyn­i­cism gripped many people, evoked in the United States in the nov­els of Ernest Hem­ing­way. New­found­land’s wounds were felt not only in the loss of her ir­re­place­able sons but also in $13 mil­lion of un­paid war loans made mostly to the Mother Coun­try.

In 1914, pas­tors and priests egged on their young con­gre­gants with blithe as­sur­ances that God was on the side of the na­tion­al­ity to which they be­longed. The back­lash against churchly par­tic­i­pa­tion in a war that took nearly 10 mil­lion lives, in­clud­ing two mil­lion Ger­mans, still lingers, es­pe­cially in Europe.

The Ro­man Catholic the­olo­gian Ger­ard Lo­hfink saw the reper­cus­sions: “That in 1914 Chris­tians went en­thu­si­as­ti­cally to war against Chris­tians, bap­tized against bap­tized, was not seen in any way a de­struc­tion of what the church is …”

Re­liance on author­ity

The new, dis­turb­ing ideas of Sig­mund Freud now seemed su­pe­rior to the ser­mons be­ing preached on Sun­day and Al­bert Ein­stein’s thoughts on “rel­a­tiv­ity” be­gan to en­ter the 20th century lex­i­con as an ex­cuse for “any­thing goes.”

On the other hand a lev­el­ling trend was in vogue, mov­ing mil­lions from their hitherto re­liance on author­ity. Women made some im­por­tant gains. Af­ter serv­ing hero­ically on the home front and the de­fense plants, Cana­dian women were given the vote in 1917, three years ahead of their Amer­i­can cousins. New­found­land fol­lowed suit in 1925. All these events were shocks to the frag­ile as­sump­tions of the 1914 world. This partly ex­plains the ten­dency to write off the First World War as a to­tally unre­deemed fail­ure, es­pe­cially the peace treaties at Ver­sailles that ended the war. Yet Bar­bara Tuch­man and an­other lady his­to­rian, Mar­garet Macmil­lan, for­merly of the Univer­sity of Toronto, would not go that far.

Civ­i­lized norms still held fast over­all. Ger­man and Bri­tish troops did min­gle in no man’s land that first Christ­mas of the war and Ger­many later sur­ren­dered on hon­or­able terms.

Those terms en­shrined in the fa­mous “Four­teen Points” prob­a­bly short­ened the war from be­ing an even more point­less fight to the fin­ish. MacMil­lan ar­gues in her provoca­tive ac­count “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” that the ef­forts of those sincerely com­mit­ted to a just peace with Ger­many at the Ver­sailles Con­fer­ence in 1919 were “not com­pletely wasted.”

In the end, Ger­many was not dis­mem­bered, as some wanted.

At­tributes of hope, re­silience

Peace con­fer­ences of­ten have fa­tal blind spots but MacMil­lan ar­gues for a new spirit abroad af­ter 1919. Some­how, na­tions and na­tional group­ing and their lead­ers were go­ing to be held more ac­count­able, and there was a sense of a moral or­der op­er­at­ing even among na­tions.

Con­sider the world­wide re­vul­sion against poi­son gas, for ex­am­ple.

Even Bar­bara Tuch­man, for all her stress on “dis­il­lu­sion­ment,” was struck by the hu­man at­tributes of hope and re­silience that may af­ford more de­tached fu­ture gen­er­a­tions a slightly al­tered view.

“Men could not sus­tain a war of such mag­ni­tude and pain with­out hope … that it could never hap­pen again.” That hope may not have been ful­filled, but she then adds how “the mi­rage of a bet­ter world glim­mered be­yond the shell-pit­ted wastes and leaf­less stumps … ” (pages 439-440).

Kevin Ma­jor re­lates how John Shi­wak, an Inuit trap­per from Rigo­let who turned into an ex­cel­lent scout for his reg­i­ment, “fought and died along­side ‘cor­ner boys’ of St. John’s.” The Labrador vol­un­teers had paid the price, he said, so that “their cap­i­tal city wouldn’t lord it over them in quite the same way” (As Near to Heaven by Sea, page 334).

A great lev­el­ling was at hand, though de­layed in still tra­di­tion­al­ist New­found­land.

A les­son bit­terly learned

Per­haps all this is an­other way of say­ing that we seem to be a re­silient and de­ter­mined species. The League of Na­tions came di­rectly out of the Great War and out of its fail­ure came, in­di­rectly, World War Two, but also the United Na­tions, keep­ing alive a sense, how­ever ob­scured, of global val­ues and norms.

The Amer­i­cans this time around dou­bled down and en­sured the head­quar­ters would sit on the Hud­son River so that the great­est world power would be of­fi­cially tied to its goals and pur­poses. A les­son bit­terly learned.

The lessons of 1914 still live on, sub­merged though they of­ten are amid rec­ol­lec­tions of the sober­ing body count.

Still, it may be more pos­si­ble with the pas­sage of time to lend some “dig­nity and sense,” in Tuch­man’s words, to the sac­ri­fices that the guns of Au­gust, 1914 called forth. Af­ter all, vol­un­tary sac­ri­fice and loy­alty to one’s mates are never out of fash­ion.

— Neil Earle is orig­i­nally from Car­bon­ear South. He teaches church his­tory for Grace Com­mu­nion Sem­i­nary. He writes from Duarte, Calif. Duarte is a city in Los Angeles County.

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