This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War, what we call World War I today because we know that it wasn’t “the war to end all wars.” Rather, it was just the beginning of global conflicts that characterized much of the last century. At the time, WWI took most observers very much by surprise. At the start of the 20th century, the outlook for peace led many in the West to believe that the progress of education, science, and technology, along with the spread of Christianity to the farthest parts of the earth, would create ideal conditions, what some were predicting would be a “Christian Century” of unprecedented peace. War belonged to the past. It was obsolete. No need for it any more. Humans were much more enlightened than in other eras. In fact, in February 1914, there were more than 30 organizations in the United States dedicated to world peace.
Street Scene, early 20th c.
Then the unanticipated, unthinkable happened.
On a state visit to Sarajevo, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire, was assassinated.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek
As the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, rode in a celebratory motorcade through the city on June 28th, a young Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip, gunned down the couple in their open limousine. (As a college student, I visited the Museum of Military History in Vienna, Austria where that vehicle is preserved. For me, it was like seeing the car in which JFK had been gunned down.)
The arrest of Gavrilo Princip
That shocking event set in motion a complicated series of alliances among European nations so that by the end of that troubled summer, war had engulfed the continent. The rallying cry between both sides--primarily England, France, and their allies, and Germany and its allies—was, “Home by Christmas!” However, the age-old traditional war strategy of massed infantry charges supported by artillery failed. Man became, instead, a slave of the new weapons technology had created, including machine guns, poison gas, airplanes, tanks, and submarines.
A new kind of warfare—in the trenches
Machine Guns and Poison Gas
By the end of 1915, Russia had lost 2 ½ million soldiers and 20% of its civilian population, making it ripe for the Bolshevik Revolution and overthrow of the Czarist government in 1917. The rest of Europe was losing on average 6,000 people for every day of the war, and the material losses were astronomical. Those nations faced either a communist takeover or total destruction. At that point, America entered the war, with President Woodrow Wilson proclaiming in his speech to Congress, “The world must be safe for democracy.”
World War I Poster
A year later, on November 11, 1918 an armistice was signed ending the conflict in which 20 million people were wounded and 10 million had died.
France had lost half of its men between the ages of 20-32, and America had lost 116,516 men with another 204,000 wounded. Four empires came to an end, and Europe’s future was impoverished. Evangelist Pat Robertson once summarized the war this way: (It was) “four years of terror and carnage beyond anything the human mind could have imagined, certainly not the minds of those who anticipated that the 20th c. would be heaven on earth.”
Aftermath World War I
While America emerged as a superpower from the Great War, a period of disillusionment and cynicism set in among Western intellectuals as an entire generation lived in the shadows of the conflict.
My grandfather, Harry Kocher, served in France during the war. Do you know of any relatives who fought in WWI?