The courage and folly of a war that left in­deli­ble scars

Dur­ing World War I, mil­lions died, em­pires crum­bled, na­tions were formed and maps were re­drawn in ways that re­ver­ber­ate might­ily a cen­tury later

Business Standard - - IN DEPTH - ALAN COW­ELL

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

The Ger­man gun­ners, The Bal­ti­more Sun­re­ported 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 am lo­cal time. One minute later, un­der the terms of an ar­mistice signed about six hours ear­lier, the so-called 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 work force 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 was a first step to­ward taking on the sta­tus of a su­per­power.

Against those over­ar­ch­ing events, Pri­vate Gun­ther’s charge might seem no more than a postscript. Yet his “sad, sense­less end,” as The Bal­ti­more Sun­put 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, a fleet­ing dis­til­late trans­acted on so­cial me­dia.

A cen­tury on, a ques­tion re­mains: Will, or should, this commemoration of Vet­er­ans Day — or Ar­mistice Day, or Re­mem­brance Day, as the date is also known — be the last on this scale? Should the world con­tinue to pause in si­lence 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 drawn from the up­per crust?

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 the 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 self-im­mo­la­tion 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 1914-18 war has found other cu­ri­ous, pos­si­bly in­ad­ver­tent, echoes. At a cam­paign rally in Mon­tana on November 3, Pres­i­dent Trump spoke about his ef­forts to pre­vent Cen­tral Amer­i­cans from cross­ing the bor­der into the United States, laud­ing what he called “all that beau­ti­ful barbed wire go­ing up to­day.” “Barbed wire, used prop­erly, can be a beau­ti­ful sight,” he mused.

Barbed wire, which was in­vented in the 19th cen­tury, was long used to fence off cat­tle ranges in the Amer­i­can West. It fig­ured, too, in the ar­chi­tec­ture of hu­man in­car­cer­a­tion. But in World War I, mile upon mile of coiled barbed wire wove through the blasted ter­rain of trench war­fare to cre­ate en­tan­gle­ments that im­peded foot sol­diers and ex­posed them to with­er­ing fire and bom­bard­ment.

In 1918, in a poem ti­tled “Ex­po­sure,” Wil­fred Owen evoked the delu­sional night­mares of sol­diers crouched in trenches, await­ing com­bat as a win­try wind howled over the bat­tle­field. He, too, spoke of barbed wire, though not in terms of beauty. “Watch­ing, we hear the mad gusts tug­ging on the wire, / Like twitch­ing ag­o­nies of men among its bram­bles.” Owen died seven days be­fore the ar­mistice stilled the guns.

The start of World War I is traced to events in Sara­jevo, then a part of Aus­tri­aHun­gary, on June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Prin­cip, a young Ser­bian, fired a hand­gun and as­sas­si­nated Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand, the heir to the Haps­burg throne, and his wife, So­phie.

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May and French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron at the World War I French-Bri­tish me­mo­rial of Thiep­val in France

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