The Great War

President Wilson at Ypres

Presidential Wilson and his presidential party view tour the devastated Ypres battlefield in Belgium June 18- 1919;
photo credit E. Jackson, U.S. Signal Corps

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The war that began in 1914 was called the Great War for many reasons, including the tremendous loss of life, the widespread physical destruction in Northern France and Western Russia and the political collapse of five major empires during and after the war. It is also commonly believed that the war planted the seeds for World War II.

The immediate cause of the First World War was the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914. (The details of what happened on June 28th read like a tragedy/comedy of errors.) The underlying causes of the war, though, included an intense international arms race and ideas of national honor and prestige prevalent in Europe by the start of the twentieth century. There was also the long simmering Franco-German rivalry (since the German victory over France in 1871), Russian-Austrian confrontation in the Balkans (dating back to Austria's threatened intervention against Russia during the Crimean War in 1855), Anglo-German tensions about overseas colonies (since the Congress of Berlin in 1885 and then the start of Germany's navy) and Russo-German rivalry over Poland (since the eighteenth century). These tensions all lay buried beneath the peaceful surface of European diplomacy waiting to explode. In 1914, they did.

It is difficult to quantify the enormous impact that the war had on Europe. The war destroyed most of the economies in Europe and left the U.S. as chief creditor nation to the world. (After the war, Great Britain owed America $3.7 billion, France--$2 billion, Italy--$1 billion. The total was over $7 billion owed to the U.S.) But to some things no price tag could ever be attached. It is not wrong to simply say that an entire generation of men lay dead on the battlefield. The numbers (very approximate) are especially horrible. Military casualties: 8.5 million killed, 29 million wounded or missing. There were 6 million German casualties versus 5.5 for France, which had a significantly smaller population than Germany. To put these numbers into further perspective, the French had mobilized 8 million men. Of these, 1.5 million were killed and 4 million wounded, i.e., about 3/4 were casualties. Of all Frenchmen between the ages of 20 and 32, 1/2 had been killed during the war. That entire generation of young men could not be replaced.

The Great War left Europe in a shambles and fundamentally altered the political balance-of-power on the continent and in the world, although that was not immediately recognized. In addition, the social and economic structures of the Western world emerged profoundly changed with, for example, the emergence of a women's rights movements as a result of the economic role played by women during World War I. In some countries, such as Germany and Italy, recovery from the war never really happened before World War II broke out. In other countries, such as Russia, the war led to the emergence of a radical, revolutionary regime whose communist ideology later had a worldwide impact. The Marxist revolutionaries in Russia had long hoped to topple the tsarist regime; the enormous cost of the war to Russia provided the Bolsheviks with the opportunity to seize power and create a new type of government.

While I could list this site below, I felt that the home page of the American Battle Monuments Commission deserved some mention here. Among the many preservation duties of the Commission is the charge to maintain twenty-four cemeteries for over one-hundred-and-twenty thousand U.S soldiers who died overseas during World War I and then World War II. Please have a look and remember those who have served. My uncle, who was washed overboard in the Pacific in November 1942, is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the West Coast Memorial in Presidio, California.

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Some recommended online lectures and websites