Why Blog About The Great War?

There has been some controversy recently over whether to officially observe the anniversary of the First World War’s beginning. To me, this portends a kind of historical lobotomy in which the only permissible memory of the Great War is that it mercifully ended after more than four years and fifteen million deaths. That is the wrong answer to the question of what happened in 1914. If we forget how this story began — if we do not remember how the best intentions of serious men and diplomats gave way to mobilization and apocalypse — then we are truly doomed to watch humanity repeat history for us. If we forget the horrors of trench warfare and mustard gas, weeks-long barrages and savage fighting, then the war’s conclusion loses all meaning, too.

I think it is partly because we don’t want to look into this abyss that so many myths about it persist a century on. For example, we still imagine the Great War as a conflict waged by uncaring generals who were detached and distant from the battlefield. But in fact, the First World War had a very high casualty rate for generals, while the distance between supreme commanders and their front lines was just a reality of the largest battlefield the world had ever seen.

We also think of it as a war of primitive technologies when the real story of the Great War is all about constant, unrelenting innovation. In focusing on the incredible casualty totals in the world’s first great conflict of industrialized armies, or the regimes that shattered due to popular discontent, we lose sight of the fact that at its beginning, the war was more popular in the streets of Europe than in her halls of power. Although reaction was by no means even across societies, the better part of an entire generation of Europeans cheered, paraded, and turned out en masse for enlistment. Rather than dismiss that reality, as pacifists and conspiracy theorists tend to do, we should try to understand it.

Worse, by focusing only on the war’s end, we also obscure its consequences. The end of the Great War did not bring an end to the crises and tensions that had sparked it; humanity would face another war, even more deadly and apocalyptic than the first, before these issues could be resolved. Ignoring the Great War’s origins and effects leaves us unable to explain why the deaths of so many people were not enough. 


Whether we like it or not, the modern world was born in blood and fire 100 years ago, impacting us all in ways that we seldom appreciate:

  • Radio was in its infancy, and broadcasting was still far in the future, yet this was the very moment that popular music was being invented
  • Aircraft were just rickety, fragile things in 1914, but strategic bombing was invented by the end of the year — and so was the controversy
  • Did you ever get a ‘cootie shot’ when you were a little kid? That’s a cultural artifact of the vaccines that had to be developed against louse-borne typhus
  • The brassiere replaced the corset, and women’s fashions were changed forever, as they marched out of their homes and into public life
  • New York became the center of the financial world during the war because London had to borrow so much money to wage it
  • Remember the genocides and atrocities in Yugoslavia during the 1990s? They were the legacy of competing imperial ambitions that caused or inflamed the Great War
  • Ever heard of a country called Iraq? The modern Middle East is still plagued by problems left over from the Great War, the Treaty of Versailles, and oil dependence
  • Words and phrases you use every day were coined: basket case, bullshit, hush-hush, kaput, nosedive, tailspin, trench coat, tripwire, and many, many more
  • Why is NATO headquarters located in Brussels? Because Germany invaded Belgium twice to get to France
  • Why was the Warsaw Pact signed in Warsaw? Because Germany invaded Poland twice to get to Russia
  • Weather forecasting was invented during the Great War. It’s why we call a line of storms a ‘front’ and represent it with map template symbols borrowed from trench warfare
  • Terrorism? People had that problem a century ago. ‘Lawless tribal zones’ were a problem then, too

We seldom appreciate just how many horrors of the Second World War actually began during the First:

  • The first German Holocaust of the 20th Century took place in Africa, not Europe, and Hitler’s Lebensraum was anticipated by the 1914 September Program
  • Three decades before the height of the American strategic bombing campaign against Germany, civilians were already being targeted from air and sea
  • German U-boats were far more successful in the First World War than the Second — and very nearly starved Britain out of the war
  • Indirect fire, mostly from rapid-firing artillery, accounts for the majority of battle casualties in the 20th Century. That trend began with the first battles of 1914
  • The first Japanese carrier strike took place 27 years before Pearl Harbor, and Japanese victory over Germany in 1914 set the stage for fascism in Tokyo