Schansberg: ‘The War to End All Wars’

November 8, 2018

Eric Schansberg

November 11th (11/11) at 11:00 a.m. is the 100th anniversary of the armistice with Germany that ended World War I. At the time, it was considered “the war to end all wars.. It was soon replaced in the public imagination by an even larger war. Still, World War I was important both for what happened in the war and what came from it.

Like most people, I know little about it. But I have remedied this to some extent by reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent book, “To End All Wars.”

Statistics about the war’s carnage are staggering. Hochschild reports that 8.5 million soldiers were killed and 21 million were wounded. Britain lost 722,000 men, including 57,000 on July 1, 1916 — almost half of its troops in the Somme Offensive. France lost 1.4 million, including 300,000 in a one-month period — and overall, 50 percent of its men between 20-32 years old. Russia lost 1.5 million, mostly in a six-month period. Germany lost more than two million, including one-third of its men between 19-22 years old.

Civilians arguably had it worse. Aside from war-time deprivations, civilian war deaths are estimated at about 20 million, including the Turkish genocide of the Armenians and the Russian Revolution. The War also led to the Great Influenza of 1918 when about 50 million died. (The epidemic started at an army base in Kansas and was brought to Europe by American soldiers.) If you include these deaths, World War I was more deadly — in absolute numbers and especially in terms of percentages — than World War II.

The war featured important changes in how warfare was conducted. Some weapons were new and effective — most notably, barbed wire, poison gas and flame-throwers. Tanks and airplanes were new to war, but largely ineffective until the end. However, their emergence pointed to their prominence in wars to come.

Some existing weapons gained influence. Naval warfare was more pronounced. For example, German U-boats sank more than 5,000 merchant ships. Firepower grew tremendously, as soldiers expended 700 million rounds of artillery and mortar. In particular, machine guns had become more effective.

This led to greater “trench warfare” (475 miles on the front lines), given the level terrain of the most relevant battlefields and the strength of defensive lines bolstered by machine guns. (The “Christmas Truce” is a strange and famous moment when soldiers from both sides left their trenches to celebrate Christmas together.)

One aspect of warfare was repeatedly and grossly overrated. Hochschild notes that the British and French kept expecting cavalry to play a key role — as it had in the past. Instead, its most pivotal role was in the military’s over estimations about its limited importance.

Once in the war, German leaders believed they would defeat Belgium and France in six weeks. From there, they planned to turn on the “real enemy,” Russia. But the Belgians blew up bridges and roads, slowing down the Germans, giving the French more time to prepare and the British more time to jump in. The Germans got within 23 miles of Paris in September 1914, but wouldn’t get any closer.

World War I also triggered the Russian Revolution. The sacking of the Czar’s regime worried European governments. They feared the same sort of uprising, especially given the pain of the war. World War I also directly destroyed or dramatically reduced five empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, German and British. And the poor resolution of World War I famously led to World War II.

Hochschild explains how the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife set off the War. The Austro-Hungarians were “looking for any possible excuse to invade, dismantle and partition Serbia.” But by the end of the war, almost all parties would regret their decisions to enter the battlefield.

A burgeoning passion for peace is perhaps the most surprising part of Hochschild’s book. For example, about 20,000 men refused the draft in Britain. He details the battle behind the scenes — between war propaganda and the peace movement. Each side had its famous proponents — most notably, Rudyard Kipling (pro-war) and Bertrand Russell (anti-war) — as the debate played out in public.

In our times, when the GOP has mostly walked away from non-interventionism and most Democrats have dropped opposition to military intervention as a key tenet, perhaps Hochschild’s reminder about this public policy debate is the most important lesson to remember from World War I.

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.


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