100 years later, have we learnt?

Jamaica Gleaner - - IN FOCUS - El­iz­a­beth Mor­gan Guest Colum­nist

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 columns@glean­erjm.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.

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