Have you forgotten yet ?
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz – The nights you watched and wired and dug...?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again ?’ . . .
Have you forgotten yet ?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
Siegfried Sassoon “Aftermath, March 1919.”
Today is Veterans Day in the United States. In part because the calendar is crowded with holidays, Veterans Day replaced an older holiday, known as Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of the First World War, surely the most needless, tragic, but consequential war of modern times. Canada, Australia and the other British Commonwealth nations, very appropriately, call today “Remembrance Day.” World War I is ancient history to most of us, yet this conflict, the war that in many ways brought down Armageddon, is with us, always. Pause, friend, for a moment, wherever you are, and remember.
At ten minutes past 5 a.m., on the morning of 11 November, the German armistice delegation, meeting with their allied counterparts in a railway car near the French city of Compiegné, accepted the Allied terms for an armistice. The Germans found the terms harsh (although they were no harder than those they had forced on the Russians in 1917) and they signed under protest.
Although the Germans had agreed to quit, the fighting did not stop until 11 a.m.: the dying that went on the rest of that long morning as pointless and futile as the whole war. In the Argonne, future President Harry Truman's artillery battery was in action, firing until it had no more ammunition at 10:45 a.m. Just east of Mons, Belgium, a Canadian soldier, Private George Lawrence Price, was fatally shot by a sniper at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the cease-fire, the last of over 60,000 Canadians to perish.
The cease-fire came, but the dying did not stop. The Allied naval blockade of the defeated Central Powers remained in place -- and it was rendered more effective by Allied access to the Baltic Sea. With agriculture and transport disrupted by the war and the political chaos in Central Europe, thousands died of malnutrition, mostly the aged and children. Meanwhile, bankrupted and bereaved survivors, particularly in the defeated countries, now demanded an accounting from their leaders, and tried to understand what it had all been for, and why this had happened.
When historians look back upon our times, they will probably agree that the 21st Century really began on 11 September 2001. Similarly, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year old Bosnian-Serb revolutionary bandit, member of a terrorist organization familarly called the Black Hand, the al Qaeda of its time, effectively began the 20th Century about 11:15 a.m. on 28 June 1914 when he murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg by a bridge in Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. A month and a week later, after multiple diplomatic fiascos no novelist could invent, that seem impossible to believe today, all Europe was at war.
Ninety years later, Sarajevo was the scene of more violence, this time between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, quarreling over the make-up of the post-Cold War Balkans. The 20th Century thus ended where and as it begin, in Sarajevo, in blood, with another war that nobody would win.
The 1990’s violence in the former Yugoslavia, like almost everything else in modern diplomacy, stemmed from the war that Princip helped begin, and which people tried to begin ending today in 1918. Over 10 million dead bodies later, the war he and a baker’s dozen of incompetents started ended today, in 1918.
Officially ended, anyway. How can an atrocity like the First World War ever truly end ? Fought over nothing, ending in no victory for anyone, except political cranks, left wing and right wing radicals, demagogic ideologues and other fanatics. The road to Auschwitz, Hitler and Stalin runs straight from the murder scene in Sarajevo, through the railroad siding in Compiegné where the armistice was signed. The Second World War killed more, in raw numbers, than the First – but the later war was only a continuation made possible by the poisons unleashed in the first war.
Satan had a good day of it in Sarajevo in June 1914. If not for the murderer Princip, and the clumsy diplomats and generals who blundered Europe and the world into a war everyone but the crazies lost, whoever would have heard of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini ? Lenin would have rotted away in exile with his books and scribblings; Hitler no doubt would have died in deserved obscurity in some Vienna doss-house. Stalin would have met the inevitable fate of a bank robber; and Mussolini perhaps never left journalism. No collapse of the British Empire forcing America onto the world stage to redress the great-power balance. No Great Depression, no Nazis, no World War II or Holocaust, no Cold War. Maybe no collapse of the Ottoman Empire giving us, ultimately, Bin-Laden, Zarqawi, Hamas and suicide bombers.
But Gavrilo Princip fired his fatal bullets, and the whole edifice of civilization crumpled before them. The shots of Sarajevo echo still. Gentle reader, think today of his crime, and of all whom, unknowing, ultimately paid. Because of the shots in Sarajevo, men who had no reason to hate each other fought and murdered each other all over the world in job lots -- in the fields of Champagne, on the roads of Poland and in the snows of Russia, in Iraq and in China. Children died in the cold Atlantic and starved by the million in Russia, the mountains of Armenia, and the Balkans. Sleepy eastern Europe, so long a quiet agricultural backwater, twice in fifty years was turned into an abattoir.
Beyond the seas, America lost its isolation. Americans died in the Argonne and, thirty years later, in the Pacific and in the deserts of Africa; later in the jungles of Vietnam. Today US Marines are dying in the hills of Afghanistan, all in some way because of, or related to the acres of warehouses of cans of worms opened by Princip.
Besides killing, maiming and wounding millions, the war had other, more insidious effects. The First World War, besides murdering millions, killed the faith of the western peoples in their civilization, in progress, parliamentary institutions, science and religion, and left us instead the poison fruits of Communism, Nazism, and Socialism. Most fatally, the west, outside of America (for a time) lost confidence in itself -- at some level even in its right to exist as a culture. Germany and Russia, gravely wounded in both body and spirit, led the turn away from God, progress, law and civilization, and burned books and millions of their own citizens. Britain, mother of Parliaments and the law, crippled and bankrupted by that war and its continuation, abandoned its Empire, is ashamed of its past, and its political class today quivers in fear of criticism by modernity's ascendant barbarians.
Today in 1918 -- on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh month, of the eleventh day – the first war ended, and the pace of the killing slackened for a time. Think of all war dead today, dear reader. But, almost 100 years on, spare a thought for a moment or two for all the dead of the Great War, so pointless, so long ago, but so horribly, tragically important.