WWI’s courage and folly left in­deli­ble scars

The Olympian - - Nation & World - BY ALAN COW­ELL

Sec­onds be­fore an ar­mistice for­mally ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, Pvt. Henry Ni­cholas Gun­ther, a U.S. soldier from Bal­ti­more, mounted a fi­nal, one-man charge against a Ger­man ma­chine-gun nest in north­east­ern France.

The Ger­man gun­ners, The Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported many years later, had tried to wave him away, but he ran on, only to per­ish in a burst of heavy au­to­matic fire – the last soldier of any na­tion­al­ity to die in the con­flict – at 10.59 a.m. lo­cal time. One minute later, un­der the terms of an ar­mistice signed about six hours ear­lier, the Great War, the “war to end all wars,” was over, and the world was an al­tered place.

The ca­su­al­ties since the con­flict’s first en­gage­ments in 1914 ran into many mil­lions, both mil­i­tary and civil­ian. The very na­ture of war­fare had changed ir­re­vo­ca­bly. Em­pires crum­bled, new na­tions arose and the world’s maps were re­drawn in ways that re­ver­ber­ate might­ily a cen­tury later. With men away at the front lines, women as­sumed roles in the work­force back home that has­tened their eman­ci­pa­tion and changed so­cial ways for­ever.

The war’s un­fold­ing had been punc­tu­ated by re­lated events that would be­come mark­ers in his­tory: the Easter Ris­ing in Ire­land in 1916; the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion a year later; the Sykes-Pi­cot Agree­ment of 1916 and the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion of 1917, which to­gether drew the pa­ram­e­ters of the mod­ern Mid­dle East and fore­shad­owed the cre­ation of Is­rael. In 1917, the United States en­tered the war with a de­ci­sive de­ploy­ment of sol­diers that led to its su­per­power sta­tus.

Against those over­ar­ch­ing events, Gun­ther’s charge might seem no more than a post­script. Yet his “sad, sense­less end,” as The Bal­ti­more Sun put it, en­dures as an em­blem of the courage and folly of a war that for­mally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. It is a re­minder, too, of a dif­fer­ent age of gal­lantry and pain, be­fore hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence was com­pressed into a pix­e­lated frag­ment dis­tilled on so­cial me­dia.

A cen­tury on, a ques­tion re­mains: Will, or should, this com­mem­o­ra­tion of Vet­er­ans Day – or Ar­mistice Day, or Re­mem­brance Day – be the last on this scale? Should the world con­tinue to pause to honor the sac­ri­fice and brav­ery of those who fought it on the ground – “lions led by don­keys,” ac­cord­ing to a phrase used to scorn the bum­bling Bri­tish of­fi­cer class?

Some ar­gue that com­mem­o­ra­tions have be­come no more than lip ser­vice. But the warn­ings against col­lec­tive am­ne­sia go back a long way. Even in 1915, long be­fore the ar­mistice, one of the most quoted po­ems of the war, by Cana­dian mil­i­tary doc­tor Lt. Col. John McCrae, imag­ined fallen sol­diers warn­ing the sur­vivors: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though pop­pies grow / In Flan­ders fields.”

In to­day’s world of shift­ing in­ter­na­tional align­ments, un­easy al­liances and grow­ing na­tion­al­ism, World War I of­fers a re­minder of how eas­ily and un­ex­pect­edly an ob­scure spark can ig­nite a con­fla­gra­tion. In 2011, for in­stance, when the self­im­mo­la­tion of a fruit ven­dor in Tu­nisia helped start the Arab Spring, who would have imag­ined that, seven years later, his ac­tion could have built into crises that have spread across the re­gion and rekin­dled ri­val­ries rem­i­nis­cent of the Cold War?

The start of World War I is gen­er­ally traced to events in Sara­jevo, then a part of Aus­tria-Hun­gary, on June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Prin­cip, a young Ser­bian na­tion­al­ist, fired a hand­gun and as­sas­si­nated Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand, the heir to the Haps­burg throne, and his wife, So­phie. The event caused a chain re­ac­tion that pro­pelled al­liances, am­bi­tions and in­se­cu­ri­ties into a global con­flict driven by tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance – poi­son gas and bat­tle tanks on land, com­bat planes in the skies, war­ships above the waves, and sub­marines be­low them.

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