Sunday, Nov. 11, marks the day exactly 100 years ago when at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the Armistice ending the Great War was signed.
Known as “the war to end all wars,” it saw the United States allied with Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, Montenegro, Japan, Italy, Romania, Portugal, Hejaz, China, Greece, Siam, and several other nations. Opposing them were the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, and smaller countries.
Although considered at the time as a deterrent to future conflicts, the war failed to meet that goal. It did, however, show how devastating war can be. The exact number of casualties is unknown, but it is estimated that the Allies lost 5.5 million military personnel killed and another 12.8 million wounded, along with 4 million civilians killed. The enemies lost 4.4 million military personnel killed and 8.4 million wounded, plus 3.7 million civilian casualties.
In America, Armistice Day was recognized as a national holiday in 1919 as proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson. Congress recognized it officially in 1938. In 1954 Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day to recognize participants in all conflicts by United States military personnel. It is a day when we remember all those who served in wartime and fought to keep this nation free.
The “Great War” brought many changes to the world as it then existed.
Improved methods of transportation, including a switch from sails to steam, had seen Germany rival Britain as a naval force.
The Industrial Revolution at the end of the Nineteenth Century brought innovation and cheaper products. Increased educational opportunities brought new thinking and new ideas. National patriotism and desire for more control over individual lives were coming into play. Where vast empires were in place, locals were balking over distant, costly and unbending rule.
These influences were being felt all over the globe, with various cultures adding clashing viewpoints. The Ottoman Empire ringed the Mediterranean Sea; its inhabitants represented strong Islamic, Jewish and Christian faiths. Russia was embroiled in unrest, its people crowding the cities in search of jobs and protesting the czar’s expenditures while he was off leading troops in a losing war; his wife was ineffectively letting her “favored” assistant Rasputin run the government. The Russian royals ended up fighting an uprising by their own Bolshevik citizenry and the neighboring Central Powers at the same time.
Germany was building its military and rushing to compete with the British for superiority on the seas. Regions within the Balkans were struggling more than ever for either dominance or independence. National borders were changing in many parts of the world. At the same time, the United States was in bad financial straits. President Woodrow Wilson was elected on an anti-war platform and struggled to find ways to improve the country’s economy.
On June 28, 1914, a group supporting Bosnian Serbs in their campaign for independence plotted to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. During the crown prince’s visit to Sarajevo, four of them stationed themselves along the route his entourage would follow. The first set off a bomb, but it missed its target. In the confusion, Ferdinand’s car changed direction. By happenstance, the Archduke’s driver approached the spot where one of the conspirators, 19-year-old Gaurilo Princip, was standing. The young man whipped out his pistol and at close range shot and killed both Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Austrians were outraged and demanded retribution.
While some historians blame that single incident for the start of a war that eventually involved more than 100 countries, its cause was far more complicated. In view of growing tensions, various governments wanted to strengthen their ties. In the run-up to the conflict, several allegiances actually changed as leaders made deals.
Fighting began 30 days later when Austrian troops invaded Serbia to avenge the assassination of the heir to their throne. Other countries became involved as the conflict spread. As additional states became involved, even more joined as dictated by treaties with neighbors. In total, more than 100 countries were to become embroiled in the hostilities. In its four years, almost 10 million military personnel died and another 21.2 million were wounded. In addition, 7.7 million civilians lost their lives.
The United States did not enter the fray until April of 1917 when it declared war on Germany.
Wilson had fought to remain on the sidelines while supplying the Allies. When he joined them, he entered not as an ally but as a “co-belligerent.” Support by Congress and the American people had built after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, a British ship of the Cunard Line, killing 128 American passengers.
The Lusitania departed New York at noon on May 1, 1915, bound for Liverpool. She had a crew of 694 and 1,265 passengers plus three stowaways. Only 761 people survived after German U-Boat U-20 fired a single torpedo into her starboard side as she neared Old Head, Ireland, six days later. The Americans all perished, as did the three German-speaking men who were found hiding after the ship left New York. The trio had been questioned by an undercover inspector from Scotland Yard and locked up in a cell below decks.
First introduced by the Confederates during the American Civil War, submarines became a major weapon for the Germans early in the war.
Attacks against unarmed ships drew worldwide criticism and for a time the U-boats were ordered to allow merchant vessels to pass. The German government, however, argued that military supplies were being transported on the freighters and the ships were therefore subject to attack. Despite protests from the British that no military materiel was aboard the Lusitania, later testimony disclosed that several tons of shell casings, small-arms ammunition and other items of war were being transported.
Although only one torpedo had been fired, there was a larger secondary explosion that some felt might have been from munitions cargo stowed aboard. Cunard representatives, however, said it was from exploding boilers.
Backed by worldwide indignation over the sinking and disclosure of a message from German officials urging Mexico to attack the United States in order to regain former territory, Americans were quick to favor sending men to the frontlines. A draft was ordered to mobilize the military and many young men volunteered to serve. This writer’s father was assigned as an aircraft mechanic in the Army Air Corps; his service ended following a crash in which he was injured. The man who would become his father-in-law was a blacksmith in Third Army’s 302nd Remount Squadron, serving in France and Germany.
Use of airplanes in combat became an important strategy in WWI and set the stage for later struggles.
The tank was introduced in that conflict and made a significant contribution. Another deadly weapon that came into play was poison gas, both chlorine and mustard gas varieties. Thousands died or suffered devastating effects after being exposed to the dangerous substances unleashed by the Germans. Poison gas use was soon outlawed under international laws.
German forces dominated undersea warfare until the Allies devised effective defensive measures. They also initially held the upper hand in aerial warfare, with Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, “the Red Baron,” becoming a feared enemy credited with 80 victories. He was killed in action April 21, 1917, believed to have been hit by a rifle shot from the ground. Even though mortally wounded, he managed to land his plane intact before breathing his last.
While most fighting stopped on Nov. 11, 1918 (some units did not receive word until weeks later), WWI formally ended with the signing of the Versailles Treaty on Jan. 21, 1920. Many national borders were changed as a result. The Treaty led to the creation of a “League of Nations,” something that had been strongly supported by President Wilson. He was out of office, however, when the Treaty was signed and its terms became controversial in this country. It was never approved by Congress, and became ineffective, and blamed for failing to stop the Nazi aggression that led to World War II. Extensive reparations payments imposed on the German government under the Treaty were a likely underlying cause of the Hitler regime’s existence.
Today’s instruments of war are many times more deadly than those of 100 years ago.
Wars have continued with the loss of millions more lives. People seem to have been in turmoil since time began. One can only hope that somehow, someday, peace will come to this planet—and now, with expansion into outer space—beyond.
The millions of young men who lie buried in foreign lands did not live to see their children marry and become parents. They lie under crosses laid out in neat lines in well-maintained cemeteries, their names engraved on markers denoting their final resting place. Now, with the threat of nuclear war, the potential for loss is catastrophic. We pray it will never come to pass.