100 years later, have we learnt?
MY FATHER was 10 years old when the First World War, the Great War, the war to end all wars, started on July 28, 1914. He was 14 when it ended on November 11, 1918. He was 35 when the Second World War, the sequel, started.
I thus grew up with many stories about the Jamaican experience in both wars and developed a great interest in them. I actually visited Flanders in Belgium in 2007 and saw the red poppies, symbol of the war and remembrance, growing in the fields where trenches were still being uncovered with bodies inside.
On Armistice Day, today, the world, including Jamaica, will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. There will be major ceremonies in Europe. Here in Jamaica, there will be the annual wreath-laying at the Cenotaph.
There are monuments here in schools, churches, and town squares in memory of the young Jamaican men who volunteered and made the ultimate sacrifice “for King and country”. The WWI commemorations in Jamaica have been low-key. However, I attended a lecture at Up Park Camp and a wonderful concert at Kingston Parish Church. At least these events and the poppies show that we have not forgotten.
In the summer of 1914 when war was declared, after nearly 100 years of relative peace in Europe, including La Belle Epoque, King George V, King of Britain and her Empire (including Jamaica), was quoted as saying, “It is a terrible catastrophe. Please God it will end soon.” His prayer was not answered. The “terrible catastrophe” dragged on for four years and demonstrated that man’s inhumanity to his fellowman, and, indeed, to animals, knew no bounds.
By the armistice on November 11, 1918, more than 40 million military personnel and civilians had died. This included more than 1,250 men from Jamaica and the British West Indies. A whole generation of young men had been lost. Well in excess of eight million horses, mules, donkeys, and dogs were also sacrificed, along with pigeons, in this “great” war, really a fierce family conflict. Through intermarriage among European royal houses, three of the main combatants were cousins: Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, King George V of Britain, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia.
Nationalism, ambition, and poor decision-making had led to this reckless venture. Many of the armies were ill-equipped for warfare in the 20th century. They came with weapons and tactics from the 19th century. Leaders were inexperienced and ill-equipped. Men went to war with great enthusiasm, expecting to be home in months, if not weeks. Little did they know of the absolute hell of mud, cold, bombs, gas, mutilation, mental disorder, and death that waited and that months would be years. They came with simmering discontent in their own countries and empires.
It became truly a world war involving directly nearly all the continents of the world and the great empires, including the Ottoman. The United States of America, with the Doughboys, entered the war in 1917. Japan was involved. Others such as Latin America felt the impact indirectly. Many countries can tell of major losses and victories.
Many of us have seen the movies and mini-series about the Somme, Paschendaele, Ypres, Gallipoli, Vimy Ridge - and all was not quiet on the western front. More recently, I recall the film War Horse, commemorating the yeoman service of the horses. Some of the names of politicians, officers, and other participants are also familiar: Winston Churchill, Bernard Montgomery, Louis Mountbatten, Douglas McArthur, George Patton, and Corporal Adolf Hitler, to name a few.
The conflagration ended with the Treaty of Versailles. Europe was in ruins. Empires (AustroHungarian and Ottoman) and monarchies (Russia, Germany) would be toppled. The map of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa would be redrawn. New powers would rise – the USA and the Soviet Union. New organisations were created, for example, the League of Nations.
Regrettably, in 21 years, less than a generation, World War II would commence. Nationalism had again reared its ugly head. Many of the players were the same. New stars would also emerge. This four-year catastrophe would end in 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb, visiting untold horror on Japan. We had entered the nuclear age of total annihilation. Europe was again in ruins. The map was again redrawn and new organisations such as the United Nations was created.
There was a pledge to build international peace and security. The world, as we know it today, was shaped by the victors: the United States and the other allies, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union (Russia). The United States became a superpower extremely influential in shaping the world order.
Today, we are seeing an attempt to dismantle this world order from an unlikely source. The US president is telling the world that he is a nationalist, an advocate of ‘America First’. We are seeing the rise of nationalism in Europe. Let us pray that in this period of the 21st century, history is not about to repeat itself. A reckless and terrible catastrophe in our times would indeed be an apocalypse with unimagined consequences for the human race and the world. Armageddon could be upon us.
Let us also pray that lessons from our past global conflagrations have been learnt and good sense will prevail. I have the feeling, though, that, at this time, my father is not resting well in his grave.
Elizabeth Morgan is a specialist in international trade policy and international politics. Email feedback to email@example.com.
In this file photo taken on April 3, 2017, the bones of soldiers are piled in a crypt at the Douaumont Ossuary in Verdun, France. Hundreds of troops died on the final morning of World War I – even after an armistice was reached and before it came into force.