Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - REMEMBRANCE DAY - Text by Tristin Hop­per and Michael Hig­gins Na­tional Post Il­lus­tra­tions by Mike Faille for Na­tional Post


The First World War could have been just an­other Eu­ro­pean war: Ger­man armies sweep into Paris, the French sur­ren­der, a peace treaty is worked out and the war is in­deed over by Christ­mas. Had this hap­pened, the world would have been spared the four years of blood­shed that en­sued, and for Canada, not a sin­gle sol­dier would have been needed in Eu­rope. In­stead, the Ger­mans were re­pulsed at the Bat­tle of the Marne, un­wit­tingly sign­ing the death warrant for mil­lions.


The open­ing weeks of the First World War had been fought in the open: Great armies smash­ing into each other in farm­ers’ fields just as they had done for cen­turies. But on Sept. 15, 1914, stale­mated British and Ger­man armies be­gan dig­ging for cover at po­si­tions in North­ern France. The trenches would en­dure for four years, stretch from the North Sea to Al­sace on the Swiss bor­der and cover some 56,000 km.


Air­planes had only been in­tended as re­con­nais­sance de­vices. In­cred­i­bly, in the first days of the First World War en­emy pi­lots (who of­ten knew each other from pre-war Eu­ro­pean fly­ing meet-ups) would even wave as they passed. On Oct. 5, 1914, this era defini­tively ended when a French pi­lot shot down a Ger­man plane. And this wasn’t a case of blaz­ing away at a face­less en­emy: The French­man pulled out his ri­fle and shot the Ger­man pi­lot di­rectly.


Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, the par­tic­u­larly vir­u­lent flu that swept through a Kansas hos­pi­tal in early 1917 would have been an epi­demi­o­log­i­cal foot­note. But oc­cur­ring as it did dur­ing the largest move­ment of hu­man­ity ever known, the Span­ish Flu would spread like prairie fire and kill more peo­ple than the war that spawned it. Tar­get­ing the young in par­tic­u­lar, there’s no telling how many fu­ture lead­ers or in­no­va­tors it claimed.


With a few small bombs ex­plod­ing in sea­side British towns on Jan 19, 1915, the era of strate­gic bomb­ing had be­gun. Ger­man zep­pelins weren’t bomb­ing troops or mil­i­tary tar­gets: This was ter­ror bomb­ing de­signed to scare Bri­tain out of the war. It didn’t work, but the idea of “break­ing the morale of a pop­u­la­tion” through bomb­ing would go on to kill mil­lions be­fore the cen­tury was out.


It is per­haps the most stag­ger­ing diplo­matic cockup in his­tory: Ger­man for­eign sec­re­tary Arthur Zim­mer­mann sent Mex­ico a mis­sive ask­ing them to de­clare war on the United States. On Jan. 16, 1917, British code­break­ers de­ci­phered the en­crypted mes­sage. It drove a skep­ti­cal U.S. into the war in April 1917.


Amid news of spon­ta­neous rev­o­lu­tion in Rus­sia, Ger­many ar­ranged for Vladimir Lenin to be sent home to his coun­try in a sealed train. Their idea, which turned out to be pre­scient, was that Lenin would hi­jack the rev­o­lu­tion and end Rus­sia’s war with Ger­many, which hap­pened late in 1917. But the move un­leashed a tide of com­mu­nist sen­ti­ment that would ul­ti­mately come for Ger­many it­self.


At mul­ti­ple points it was a tossup who would win. The Spring Of­fen­sive in March 1918 was Ger­many’s at­tempt to score a knock­out blow be­fore the Amer­i­cans be­came an ef­fec­tive fight­ing force. But ini­tial Ger­man suc­cess soon be­came bogged down. They ended up with 800,000 killed or wounded.


Cana­dian and French troops were the ones who suf­fered with the first large-scale use of poi­son gas — chlo­rine — on April 22, 1915, at the Bat­tle of Sec­ond Ypres. Within min­utes 5,000 sol­diers were dead. This was the point at which any sem­blance of war as a glo­ri­ous man-to-man strug­gle ended. Men were now erad­i­cated with hu­man in­sec­ti­cide.


This was where the First World War be­gan to trans­form from an unusu­ally costly con­flict into a fullfledged night­mare. Tens of thou­sands of men thrown into bat­tle for lit­tle or no re­sult. Troops forced to live among the piled corpses of their dead, drink from green pud­dles and go mad from con­stant shelling. All th­ese im­ages be­came so­lid­i­fied at the Bat­tle of Ver­dun be­tween Fe­bru­ary and De­cem­ber 1916.


The last gasp of ci­vil­ity on the West­ern Front. Sparked by the spirit of Christ­mas Day, Ger­man and British troops met in No Man’s Land, sang car­ols, shared al­co­hol and food, and even played a soc­cer game. When se­nior of­fi­cers later heard what hap­pened they were hor­ri­fied. And by 1915 the ha­treds would be too deep, and the losses too great, for any shared hu­man­ity with the Ger­mans.


July 1, 1916, one of the most in­fa­mous days of the war. The open­ing of the Bat­tle of the Somme saw 100,000 Al­lied men — in­clud­ing New­found­lan­ders — sent “over the top” to take Ger­man trenches. The Ger­mans sim­ply mowed them down with ma­chine-gun fire. A to­tal of 19,240 were killed — it was the blood­i­est day in the his­tory of the British army. The next five months would see a mil­lion sol­diers die from all sides.


It was only a sideshow to the greater war, but the British cap­tured Jerusalem and the fu­ture ter­ri­tory of Is­rael from the Ot­toman Em­pire in De­cem­ber 1917. British Ma­jor T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Ara­bia — said: “For me (it) was the supreme mo­ment of the war.” The city’s cap­ture, along with the Sykes-Pi­cot Agree­ment, would largely set the stage for the Mid­dle East we know to­day.


By late 1918, the Ger­man na­tion was sub­jected to waves of mu­tinies, protests and mini-rev­o­lu­tions. Its army was de­feated, its navy re­fused to fight, its peo­ple were starv­ing and the Kaiser had ab­di­cated. Aware that fu­ture fight­ing was hope­less, Ger­many agreed to an armistice that came into ef­fect on Nov. 11, 1918.

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