I’m not a historian of wars in general, but I have always had a personal feeling for the tragedy that was World War I: a pointless, desperate conflict that produced a few great poems but snuffed out millions of lives. The anniversary of the Armistice is coming up so I stopped in at my local public-radio station, NEPR, to record a commentary about the war, its end, and the lessons it offers. You may listen to it here—or you may read a slightly expanded version below.
This week we remember a solemn time in world history. On November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m.—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—an Armistice went into effect between German and Allied forces.
This agreement brought an end to what was called the Great War or the War to End All Wars. Obviously, the latter name didn’t stick, and the war was eventually renamed World War I in order to distinguish it from World War II and all the other conflicts that ensued.
If war is hell in general, soldiers in the Great War found themselves in one of Dante’s lowest levels of the inferno.
More than 16 million people died in the four years between 1914 and 1918. For much of the war’s duration, the front lines barely budged. Soldiers on the Western Front fought in muddy trenches, subject to disease, vermin, chemical weapons, shell shock, and of course the enemy’s bullets and bayonets. Millions of civilians were displaced from their homes; refugees streamed out of Belgium, Serbia, Russia, Armenia, and France.
When I was a little girl, soldiers from World War I still marched in Veterans’ Day parades. Many of them wore a poppy. The flower gained its significance from John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” This poem was written from the point of view of dead soldiers during the battle of Ypres in Belgium in 1915. McCrae himself would die later in the war.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place,” it begins.
The poppies in the poem remind us that nature endures despite the horrible things men do to each other. To me these bright red flowers also represent the spilled blood and lost hopes of the war dead.
What were the lessons of World War I?
That we should never rush into war. That we should never conflate patriotism and militarism. That we should consider civilian victims as well as soldiers. And above all that the victors in a conflict should avoid punishing the vanquished. That happened at the close of World War I—and it ended up contributing to the start of World War II.
I would like to think that we have learned at least some of these lessons. I know we have to try to master them, to train our individual and collective psyches to see war only as a last resort—and to pursue it, if we must, mindful of our own humanity, the humanity of civilians caught in the path of battle, and the humanity of those we fight.
We owe this to ourselves, to our children, and to the memory of those who gave their lives in the Great War and the wars that followed.
As McCrae concluded, “If you break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”