100 years on

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War – World War I.

It was the great disaster of the 20th century, the one that summoned or forced the disasters that would follow, from Lenin and Hitler to World War II and the Cold War. It is still, a century later, almost impossible to believe that one event, even a war, could cause such destruction, such an ending of worlds.

History still isn’t sure and can never be certain of the exact number of casualties. Christopher Clark, in “The Sleepwalkers” (2013), puts it at 20 million military and civilian deaths and 21 million wounded. The war unleashed Bolshevism, which brought communism, which in time would kill tens of millions more throughout the world. (In 1997, “The Black Book of Communism,” written by European academics, put the total number at a staggering 94 million.)

Thrones were toppled, empires undone. Western Europe lost a generation of its most educated and patriotic, its future leaders from all classes—aristocrats and tradesmen, teachers, carpenters and poets. No nation can lose a generation of such men without effect. Their loss left Europe, among other things, dumber.

That’s Peggy Noonan writing in the WSJ.

My understanding of the Great War comes from two sources – Jock Taylor, my great-grandfather, lived with my parents and I in the early 1970s and had fought in the conflict and would tell me of his war-time experiences in the evenings. One of his brothers became a German prisoner of war and his other brother was killed by a shell.

My second source comes from reading Charley’s War in the 1980s.

The tension between what Charley’s War can initially appear to be and its radical polemical purpose may make it a tough book to warm to at first. The fact that it’s an exceptionally emotionally literate tale told in what seems to be the form of a traditional boy’s gung-ho war comic is challenge enough. It’s a story that speaks to an audience of literate children with the conviction that it could be enjoyed by adults as well, and the needs of the two often inevitably clash. Its pages are marked by the most sophisticated writing, and yet, that’s by necessity expressed, at times, as clunky exposition constantly reiterating the who, why, where, and what of it all. Similarly, subtle characterization is also matched with melodramatic and even occasionally mawkish set-pieces, allowing each week’s episode to create the thrills necessary to keep it popular with its youthful audience. And so, Mills and Colquhoun were constantly pushing the bounds of what they could say and show while making the most of the constraints they were working under. It’s difficult not to constantly be aware of the limitations of the boy’s war comic form, as well as noting how it’s being deliberately and inventively subverted.

See the Wiki entry too.

For a perspective of what the world lost due to the Great War – read Stefan Zweig’s The world of Yesterday.

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28 Responses to 100 years on

  1. Ant

    Foxtel have been running some terrific docos over the last few weeks, such as Apocalypse WWI.

  2. Gab

    For a perspective of what the world lost due to the Great War – read Stefan Zweig’s The world of Yesterday.

    I don’t think I could. It’s just too sad to read through what we lost from that period.

  3. oldsalt

    How about what we gained from it?

    If we hadn’t grabbed German New Guinea [which included Manus Isl] and Nauru, Scottie would be rooted.

  4. mareeS

    That comment is a bit beneath you, saltie.

    If Gough hadn’t handed PNG back to the jungle bunnies in 1975, it would be a different place than the failed state it is now.

    Like everything Labor, the law of unintended consequences applies.

  5. Sinc-two more books are in my mind essential to understanding the Mindsets that unleashed the Great war. The first is Julian Benda’s 1928 The Treason of the Intellectuals, which really shows how dangerous the collectivist emphasis on trying to create a non-rational mind guided by emotions can become. That’s still a modern problem as all my current work on education globally keeps revealing.

    The 2nd is a book HG Wells wrote called The Open Conspiracy inspired by his belief of what shifts needed to occur to make sure an elite could prevent such a war from ever happening again. Having read Benda, Wells’ theories on the needed World Revolution actually seem to make another conflagration more likely unless these intentions are better known.

    In 2002 W Warren Wagar brought The Open Conspiracy back into print. His new Preface indicates Wagar still wants it to be an operating manual. I wish I were kidding or exaggerating.

  6. Baldrick

    I wonder what our Diggers, who went across to the other side of the world and paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, would make of us today? Would they consider our modern society as having been worth the price?
    We seem to have so easily given up all the values, ideals and morals which once made this country great, that men would lay down their lives voluntarily to protect it. Nowadays, some Australian’s don’t go overseas to fight for this nation but for a religious ideology, which is our shame to their legacy.

  7. Ant

    Mark Thompson’s The White War covers the bloodbath in the northern Italian Alps between Italy and Austria (where my grandfather fought and was wounded).

    Shocking, depressing, captivating, and all the rest.

  8. Gab, if you can’t bear to read the book, see the movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

  9. The Old and Unimproved Dave

    After Bismarck was discarded by Wilhelm II, he made this prediction:

    “Jena came twenty years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come twenty years after my departure if things go on like this” ? a prophecy fulfilled with the Kaiser’s abdication almost twenty years to the day after Bismarck’s death.

  10. rickw

    Where I come from, there is no town, just a small timber church on a dusty corner of a paddock, roughly 10 families from surrounding farms have been attending for over 100 years.

    The roll of honor for WWI has 12 names on it.

    Now that is a disaster.

  11. rickw

    If Gough hadn’t handed PNG back to the jungle bunnies in 1975, it would be a different place than the failed state it is now.

    Absolutely, I live and work in PNG at present, what Gough did amounts to little more than a betrayal of the people of PNG.

    Independence cannot work when more than half the population don’t even know what it is.

  12. Peter

    I grew up knowing two men – in the finest sense – who fought in both World Wars. To go through the First and then front up for the Second requires a depth of principle and commitment that seems utterly foreign to the moderns.

  13. Mater

    I had a great, great uncle who served in the Boer War, along with his older brother, in 1899. In due course, he landed in Gallipoli as an ‘original’ and was subsequently shipped off to France for the remainder of the conflict, during which we lost his younger brother to a sniper (6’2″ and shallow trenches). Following the war, he returned to the farm but on the outbreak of WWII he, again, volunteered. The story has it that being reluctant to send such an old man overseas, and being limited in their options to stop him, the Army told him that they believed him to be underage hence requiring parental approval (knowing full well they were long past). He eventually agreed to a training position in Australia preparing soldiers for deployment.
    He lived to the ripe old age of 96 but unfortunately never married or had children (that may explain his longevity).
    I apparently met him when I was very young…I wish I’d been older. He would have had some interesting stories to tell.

  14. Token

    My understanding of the Great War comes from two sources – Jock Taylor, my great-grandfather, lived with my parents and I in the early 1970s and had fought in the conflict…

    I understand the meaning in this statement. I too had a grandfather who who shared his memories, he served/survived on 2 fronts in central europe in WWI.

    It was starting how far the world had moved already so far by the 1970s and one does question whether the reactionary forces which controlled so much at that time would have allowed the development of the 20th century.

    As he was a local official through most of his life, many of his stories of the what the society was like before it was un-made by 2 wars had echoes of the statements another writer describes from central Asia:

    Peace Corps did not focus on the “small beginnings” necessary to accomplish its grandiose goals. Schools rarely ran, girls and low caste children did not attend, and widespread corruption guaranteed that all students received passing grades. Those students who did learn had no jobs where they could apply their skills, and if they rose above their station, the hereditary big men would sabotage them. Thanks to cultural relativism, we were forbidden to object to rampant sexism or the caste system. “Only intolerant oppressors judge others’ cultures.”

  15. Token

    Mark Thompson’s The White War covers the bloodbath in the northern Italian Alps between Italy and Austria (where my grandfather fought and was wounded).

    Yes, it was a startling campaign. Too few people are aware of that front across that sheer terrain. It is a marvel what occured there.

  16. thefrollickingmole

    WW1 wiped out the male line of my great grandmother.

    2 boys joined up both killed, the Father of the boys joined up after them to try and keep them safe (he hoped to get in the same unit).
    Instead he was no where near them when they died, one just missing the other buried alive by a shell.
    The father was injured by an exploding gun and ended up with a leg 1/2 and inch shorter than the other.
    Destroyed the family.
    Ive got their pictures and “dead mens pennies”.

  17. Myrddin Seren

    An entire generation of men ( and no small amount of women ) killed, maimed or scarred.

    If that was not enough of a cultural, economic and demographic disaster – the Nazis and Fascists thought another go around would somehow redress the losses of the first time.

    I would argue we are still living the aftershocks of 100 years ago – and this guest post


    suggests that we may not be too far off an endgame which has at its core, as Robin suggests upthread:

    shifts needed to occur to make sure an elite could prevent such a war from ever happening again.

    the very description of Jean Monnet – godfather of the EU – with everything that entails in terms of a mere facade of democracy while the ‘philosopher kings’ seize the real levers of power.

    Read some columns from Brendan O’Neill and Ben Pile – in which it is made clear that the benevolent elites are formed of an utter contempt for the regular folks, whose passions they despise and see as the root cause of what happened a century ago.

  18. Diogenes

    Like many others on this blog, I learned about WW1 and its aftermath from my grandparents (both paternal & maternal). Where I differ is that my grandparents were on the loosing side – GGF was wounded at Fromelles and again later in the “Michael” offensive – being killed when the Americans shelled his hospital. Great Grandma & Grandma hated the British whom they held responsible for the “Great Starvation of 1919” when the allies blockaded Germany in order to force it to sign the Treaty. Paternal grandfather spent a 6 years in a Russian POW cage in Siberia having been taken prisoner in 1916 . The family lost its lands when their bit of Transylvania was handed over to the Romanians (and then the Romanians started their cultural genocide which is still going on).

    One thing I learned from them and later when I was in the ARES with Korea & Vietnam Vets , was they could tell you what it was like (suitably filtered – I still wakeup shuddering sometimes when something triggers memories of the stories a great uncle told of Stalingrad – he was lucky being evacuated on one of the last planes out – he left an arm, some spleen, and part of intestines behind) , but they are the worst for telling you what was going on generally. For these I am thankful for The “Official Histories” (both sides) and various analyses – even then there seem to be some battlelines – the Poms claim WW1 was about the battleship “arms race” – the Germans that it was a calculation that by 1922 Russia would have rearmed enough to be a threat to Germany (in 1914 one Army Corps in the Germany army had more machine guns and Artillery than the entire more numerous Russian army, and Germany & Germany needed to secure the Western Front in order to put Russia in its place.

  19. Rococo Liberal

    There are some simple propositions that need to be stated about the Great War:

    1. It was a very necessary war, without it Germanay would have doninated the Continent;
    2. Germany bears the blame for causing the war
    3. The British army won the war in its most spectacular sustained set of victories from 8 August to 11 November 1918, whilst the French were too tired and the Americans to0 green.
    4. The Germans surrendered because they were beaten
    5. Versailles wasn’t too bad a treaty and was not he cause of the 2nd War, allied puslimamnity and German wickedness were to blame for that war.

  20. stackja

    Rococo Liberal
    #1396768, posted on July 28, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    AIF won some important battles in August 1918. Hamel for example.

  21. stackja

    Hamel was 4 July 1918.

  22. oldsalt

    Ok Maree S I’ll cop to that, I was too flippant by half. Apologies and let me start again.

    We fought ww1 because it was in our interest. We gained. We could have lost a lot. The first thing we did was invade and annex German New Guinea. Had Germany won they would have grabbed our part of Papua, consolidated their empire in New Guinea and the Pacific and taken Brit possessions like Christmas Isl and Ashmore. The Netherlands and NEI were neutral but effectively helped Germany by evading the trade boycott. Had Germany won Ashmore would probably have ended up with NEI.

    The template for our contemporary physical security was made possible by ww1. It was made possible by men who died. Any revisionist historian who tries to tell us otherwise has got shit for brains.

  23. notafan

    My great uncles pennies adorn their mother’s grave in a small country cemetery. She lost three sons, one at the age of three and then these two, a bit older than the average recruit killed five weeks apart somewhere round Fromelles I think.
    WWII left my father a very sick man and eventually killed him. Every so often I dream he is still alive but it isn’t true.
    I see those pictures of the fine men killed fighting for Israel, just bloody awful.

  24. oldsalt

    Re PNG ‘new underpants’ [Independence]

    One of our longest serving Administrators there explained to me why he supported it.

    Over some 30 years he and his mates had developed an understanding with their own age group in PNG. There was mutual respect. None such existed with the new generation. If he raided and broke up criminal/potentially subversive cargo cults the young fought back. This lack of respect was replicated among their troops.

    He wanted to truly develop PNG. He’d put in roads and bridges but for big projects he needed big money from Canberra. The latter wasn’t willing to go to the next level. Hence his belief that he, and Australia, had done as much as could be done and it was time to go. Not because he wanted to, but because we had lost generational respect and didn’t have the commitment to develop PNG.

  25. stackja

    Australian Official Histories – First World War
    Scott wrote:

    The first official warning to Australia came in the form of a cablegram in cipher from the Imperial Government, despatched from London at 6.35 p.m. on July 29th. It was intended to read, when deciphered:

    See preface defence scheme. Adopt precautionary stage.
    Names of powers will be communicated later if necessary.

    The message reached Sydney on July 30th at 3 p.m. It was at once sent to the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson,who happened to be then in Sydney 5, as were Senator Millen, the Minister for Defence, and Mr. Kelly,7 Honorary Minister. A copy was handed to the Minister for Defence, and another was sent by post to the Prime Minister’s secretary.

    While Bean wrote:

    ON the 30th of July, 1914, a cablegram in secret cipher from the British Government to the Government of Australia informed it that there was imminent danger of war. It was not necessary to indicate the enemy. Every Australian knew that a quarrel between Austria and Serbia had occasioned the intervention of Germany.
    On Wednesday, July 29th, the British Government despatched the first of the two warning telegrams. This was received by the Governor-General of Australia on July 30th.
    It informed the Government that the time had arrived for bringing into force the “precautionary stage” of the Defence Scheme. This was immediately followed by a second telegram, instructing the Australian Government that the measures for the examination of ships entering Australian ports were not at the moment required, but that arrangements should be made to enforce them when necessary. On Saturday, August 1st, the word came that this precaution also should be taken. On Thursday, July 30th, when the first critical news arrived, the Governor-General was in Sydney, as was also Senator Millen, the Minister for Defence. Joseph Cook. the Prime Minister, alone was at the seat of Government in Melbourne: he had arranged to follow Andrew Fisher, the leader of the Opposition, in an important election speech at Colac on Saturday. It will appear to future generations of Australians a strange token of the manner in which Australia stood on the brink of the precipice without suspecting the tremendous plunge ahead of her that, even on the receipt of this warning, the Prime Minister (whose whole-hearted unswerving devotion to the British Empire was and is one of the main principles of his life) did not instantly call the members of his Cabinet to meet him the next day or the day after in Melbourne; that the Minister for Defence did not immediately return to the Navy and Defence Departments at the seat of Government; and that the Governor-General did not forthwith move to Melbourne and ask the Prime Minister to confer with him. *
    * see pp ix-x
    The comment (pp. 23-4) upon the apparent inaction of Ministers and of the Governor-General on receipt of the warning telegram from the British Government was written in ignorance of the fact, since ascertained, that on July 31st Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson took the step of suggesting to the Prime X PREFACE TO THlRD EDITION Minister, the Right Honorable Joseph Cook (then at Ballarat) that he should summon a meeting of Ministers in order that the British Government might know what support it could expect from the Australian Government. The passage in question should be read in the light of this additional knowledge. It is difficult to see what more the Governor-General could have done.

  26. James Hargrave

    Appropriate that the proper starting date for this disaster is commemorated.

    On the outbreak – the Serb mentality throughout the 20th century seems to have been aligned to a violent, hyper-nationalist insanity, though, as is often the case with such things, they have become one of its major victims.

    As to Versailles – a typical muddle. Too harsh in one way, not harsh enough in another. Just leaves an extremely disgruntled foe capable of revival and, thanks to the sponsorship of bogus ‘nations’ and their aspirations in the Danubian basin, leaves it, upon revival, potentially stronger than ever in the continental core. Little better could be expected from the calibre of allied ‘statesman’ – the corrupt, fornicating small town Welsh solicitor was in his element alongside the French and Italian, a barking progressivist academic from the USA mouthing sanctimonious tosh, barely House-trained, and we must not forget Australia’s own ghastly PM.

  27. Rob

    Gab: “For a perspective of what the world lost due to the Great War – read Stefan Zweig’s The world of Yesterday. I don’t think I could. It’s just too sad to read through what we lost from that period.”

    Sad though it may be, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one of my favorite books. It also gives an indication of what it’s like to live through hyperinflation, which might be of interest for those of an economic bent.

  28. Gab

    Thank you, Rob. I’ll start with a peek first though, before going ahead and committing to purchase. 🙂

    Maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through, being winter and all.

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