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The Great War began one hundred years ago this very summer. But while the 70th anniversary of D-Day made headlines for a week and more across the nation, our memory, when it comes to the First World War, may as well not exist at all.

The Great War claimed between twenty and sixty-five million lives, civilian and military combined. Perhaps it is because the Americans did not enter the war until 1917 that we do not remember it with as much fervor as we remember the beaches of Normandy. Yet the fact is that while World War One changed our nation and our world, this summer, on the one hundredth anniversary of its outbreak, few Americans have any real sense of why this war occurred, when it occurred, how many people died, in what ways our country was changed, or for what cause so many soldiers were willing to more or less commit suicide by enlisting. Our journalists seem themselves unaware of this anniversary.

Normandy evokes our memory, but Gallipoli does not. Okinawa does, but Verdun does not. The trenches are some cloaked memory of ages passed. No one remembers the toxic gasses that, for four horrible years, became weapons. With the last of those who killed and died in this war, our memory of these events fell away. Will the same happen for the Second World War? The third, however far or near that may be?

The great and terrible history of blood and iron is washed by the slow passing of years, and once washed that history is seldom restored to memory. It is the fate of all wars big and small, from the Crusades to Napoleon. Historians can point to cities on a map. But that is not what war looks like. That is not what war feels like. Wars have a greater impact on our lives than changing the shade of our country on a map from one color to another, but only if we make an effort to keep history alive, to learn from our mistakes, and to heed the lessons our elders would teach us.

I have made an effort to study war and to ask my elders about their memories, and all the impressions I have of World War One are negative ones. Ten thousand men dying in a single charge up a hill in Turkey for no damn reason. Men here in the States thrown in jail or tried for treason against their country because they dared to ask why this war was being fought. A great-uncle of mine who didn't sleep the whole night through for a single night of his life after suffering neurological gas damage at the age of eighteen, and who began to lose his sanity in his young thirties. French and German troops calling over to one another's trenches to tell the opposing side when they would be firing, just to make sure they didn't keep killing each other until no one was left-- because everyone in those trenches knew that this war was senseless. I've read the statistics in academic journals when I was earning my major in history. I remember browsing through regiments whose death rates were above four hundred percent-- that meant that the entire regiment had been killed and replaced on five separate occasions. It is our duty to remember all of this and more, or else we are letting anywhere between twenty and sixty-five million die in vain.

We cannot let this anniversary go unmarked. We should not let it pass in silence. If we have one thing to learn from our reflection, we should learn that peace is sacred, and we should cherish that peace for our own selves and for everyone around the world. Our peace should be as loud as their war, or else their war was truly for nothing.

August first is the 100th anniversary of the day when Germany declared war on Russia and the First World War formally began. On that day, I challenge everyone to share a story about war and peace. Remembering one of mankind's greatest blunders, let us learn our greatest lesson, and let us remember it well enough that it may also be remembered by those who follow us.

Those who survived the bombs and the guns and the gas and the tanks dreamed of a world where peace endures forever. We can try to build that world, or we can let this anniversary pass us by already forgotten.

Matthew R. Bishop is a journalist and novelist. He is the C.E.O. of World Report News, a conflict prevention world news company launching in 2015, and also writes humanist fantasy and antiwar allegories.

Originally posted to Matthew R Bishop on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 12:22 PM PDT.

Also republished by Netroots For The Troops®.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The Great War Shaped the World (11+ / 0-)

    ... we live in today.  Here's an excerpt from a long diary I posted on Armistice Day on November 11, 2013 - "The Old Lie: Dulce Et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori" - Poets and Propaganda in a Time of War.

    Of the many different types of diaries I've written over the years, this one remains one of my favorites.


    Dulce Et Decorum Est
    by Wilfred Owen

    By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question.  No road.  No thoroughfare.  Neither race had won, nor could win, the War.  The War had won, and would go on winning.

    - Poet Edmund Blunden, quoted in David Burg's Almanac of World War I, p. xii.


    Helping Fineena - A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma

    by JekyllnHyde on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 12:43:49 PM PDT

  •  I don't think this anniversary wil be forgotten (7+ / 0-)

    I've read numerous news stories about upcoming commemorations in Europe, where they certainly remember the Great War.

    Three days from now is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, certainly the catalyst that lit the fuse for the horrors to come.

    I just read a fascinating look at the leadup to the war, and the first few months of campaign warfare, before things stagnated into the trench warfare that came to symbolize WWI: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings.

    A remarkable book, and offers a fine look, especially, at the Eastern Front in 1914, where the first big battles took place.

    A fascinating website that is a real time-killer is Europeana 1914-1918, which contains thousands of donated items related to the war, such as photos, diaries, family stories, etc. Really, you'll get lost in this website for hours.

    My grandfather Nielsen immigrated from Denmark to the US in the early 1900s. During the war he joined the Tank Corps and was sent to France.

    Any group with the word "Patriot" in its name, probably isn't.

    by Senor Unoball on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 12:46:20 PM PDT

  •  I think Americans should study WWI more (6+ / 0-)

    We tend to devote a lot of time to WWII for various reasons:

    1. It was more recent.
    2. It had more clear-cut good guys and bad guys.
    3. We played a much larger part.

    There are still many lessons to be learned from WWI. A map of Europe in 1914 would not have looked unfamiliar to Napoleon. By 1918 the world had changed completely. Three large empires (Russian, Ottoman, Austria-Hungary) had ceased to exist. The United States and Japan became major players on the world stage.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 12:46:29 PM PDT

  •  I'm reminded of WWI everyday that I go into work. (7+ / 0-)

    The building that I work in at the Univ. of Wisconsin originally was the Wisconsin State General Hospital in Madison. It was built in the early 20's and right beside the front entrance is a big plaque honoring all the WI vets who died in "the World War". It always makes me pause to think that when the building was constructed there had not yet been a 2nd world war.

  •  1914-1991 (9+ / 0-)

    I believe that future historians will view the World Wars and the Cold War as a single European Civil War that defined the 20th Century.  

    Like dominoes, one event leads directly to the other.  

  •  Senor Unoball is right... (6+ / 0-)

    ... this is a bigger thing in Europe.

    I've been lucky and visited most of the Flanders battlefields and cemeteries in the past, plus towns like Poperinge and Ypres. The Menin Gate should be a required visit for any world leader, along with Auschwitz. Both are intensely sobering places.  

    •  Americans came late to the war (5+ / 0-)

      Amazing to think that this country was neutral for more than 3 years while Europeans were wading in blood. Because of that, WWI did not cause the soul-numbing trauma to America that it caused to Europe.

      But the fighting killed off an entire generation of young men, from all the belligerents. As a percentage of population, the French were decimated, the Germans also, and the British, Russians, etc., not far behind.

      If your handle indicates that you are British, then I'd put almost any amount of money on a wager -- without even knowing you -- that you had grandparents, or great-grandparents, or great uncles, or somebody else in your family (and probably more than one) who were killed in WWI.

      Nobody who lived in Europe in 1914 got out of that war unscathed at some level.

      Any group with the word "Patriot" in its name, probably isn't.

      by Senor Unoball on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 01:11:03 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  America has a different perception of the World (4+ / 0-)

        Wars. We did come late to them and didn't see thousands of years of history smashed to smithereens in our home neighborhoods for the most part.

             I work at a public library that is doing a World War I exhibit this summer for that very reason, while all around us seem to be reading books about World War II. It's the anniversary and it seems like nobody's noticing. It's only been 100 years since everything about America changed dramatically.
             On the lighter side- if there is a lighter side to violence and destruction- we are encouraging our patrons to read Thirty Nine Steps and then enjoy Hitchcock's version of the movie. Wiki sez it was what the soldiers were reading in their downtime in the trenches. I think it's interesting because it seems to be the first of it's type which has been popular ever after.

        We are all pupils in the eyes of God.

        by nuclear winter solstice on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 01:23:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Yes... (3+ / 0-)

        .. in fact, I have a relative who's name is on the Menin Gate,  presumed dead, but no remains could be found.

      •  Scotland...definitely not unscathed. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Senor Unoball, Matthew R Bishop

        My grandfather's family was likely not unusual.

        Six sons born in the 1880s/1890s ~ one died in infancy in the tenement slums of Leith, one died the first day of the Somme, the other four also fought in WWI (two in British forces, two in Canadian), with two of the four having life-long health issues from the war. A couple brothers-in-law were also in bad shape (one physically, one mentally) the rest of their lives.

        The impact of what we would now call PTSD on that generation was immense :-(

        The worst sin - perhaps the only sin - passion can commit, is to be joyless. (Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers)

        by mayim on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 05:48:53 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Canada, too (4+ / 0-)

      67,000 Canadians were killed, a significant chunk of Canada's male population at the time. And a lot of them were volunteers; when war was declared, they rushed right down to the local recruiting office.

  •  The generals on both sides of the "Great War" (5+ / 0-)

    should have been tried as war criminals. They continued to use military tactics from the Napoleonic era- massive charges of men for inconsequential gains until the ground was soaked with blood - an unholy war of attrition.

    What these incompetents could not understand was that modern weapons like the machine gun, improved artillery and poison gas required new tactics matching the new weaponry. How many thousands of men died unnecessarily, without any clear military objective, because these war criminals fought an 18th century war in the 20th century.  

    •  It has been surmised that Nazism took hold (2+ / 0-)

      of Germany so quickly and easily because you had a whole culture severely suffering from post traumatic stress disorder caused by the war.

      •  And the French lack of fight in 1940 (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        thanatokephaloides, aaraujo

        One of the main causes may have been not only fewer men to fight again, but the soldiers remembered what happened to their fathers and other relatives, and simply could not go through the same thing.

        Any group with the word "Patriot" in its name, probably isn't.

        by Senor Unoball on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 02:27:39 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  France was also politically polarized in the 1930s (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Senor Unoball

          half the country were Vichy fascists.  

          When I lived in France I would travel to small towns and go see the war memorials.  The WW1 memorials listed many more names than the WW2 ones that stood by their side.

          Many of the small towns simply had no one left after WW1 to fight in WW2.

    •  One was of course (2+ / 0-)

      but only in 1945. Philippe PĂ©tain was a Marshall of France and considered a war hero after 1918. After his premiership of Vichy France during the occupation he was tried and convicted of treason. He was only spared the guillotine because of his age and previous record.

      There's a new view that the characterization of the Allied generals as incompetent and distant was a direct result of their not being on the battlefield itself. That to some extent was logical given the strategic nature of what was the first industrialized war. Still the view of the British that their forces were "Lions led by donkeys" persists. It was reinforced in the 1960s by the stage musical and later film of "Oh What A Lovely War" - its end sequence:

      More recently it was central to the BBC comedy series "Blackadder Goes Forth"
       The end of Blackadder is particularly poignant (sorry about the poor quality as this is the only version I could find showing the whole end sequence)

      "Come to Sochi, visit the gay clubs and play with the bears" - NOT a Russian advertising slogan.

      by Lib Dem FoP on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 02:17:58 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Look around at the World today and see that it (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JekyllnHyde, Senor Unoball, aaraujo

    is still being shaken to the core by the death of Archduke Ferdinand and August 1914 look at the political stress's and conflicts in just these places Iraq,Iran,Syria,Israel,Russia,Japan,China,The Korea's,Vietnam,Afghanistan and even Pakistan and India.First no war no fall of the Royal Houses of Germany,Austria,Russia,other Royal Houses of Europe and heck even The Ottoman Empire might still be around and without the collapse and fall of The Czar to the Communist then whole nations would not have been Communist for there would have been no Soviet Union to help and inspire those efforts in places like China and with a still strong Kaiser no Hitler and Nazis so maybe had the Archduke not been murdered and the Major Powers had been more wise and a little less War-hungry well there would have been some-kind of War later but maybe not with the same ramification as The Great War.    

  •  "For all of us there is a twilight zone (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Senor Unoball

    between history and memory; between the past as a generalized record, and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one's own life. For individual human beings, this zone stretches from the point where living family traditions or memories begin - say, from the earliest family photo which the oldest living family member can identify... to the end of infancy, when public and private destinies are recognized as inseparable and mutually defining one another ('I met him shortly before the war...) There is always such a no-man's land of time. It is by far the hardest part of history for historians, or anyone else, to grasp."
    ~E.J. Hobsbawm, Age of Empire.

    You can wake someone who is sleeping, but you cannot wake someone who is pretending to sleep.

    by gnothis on Wed Jun 25, 2014 at 04:57:03 PM PDT

  •  Very well written,sir (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Senor Unoball

    We don't remember WWI because we cannot evoke those John Wayne moments that let some people so easily wrap themselves in the flag.

    We were still not a world power after WWI the way we were after WWII.

    The troops returning home from WWI got nothing, not even their jobs back.   The troops returning from WWII got free Ivy League educations, garaunteed unemployment insurance for a year until they found work and low interest loans to buy houses.

    Remember, more British, more French and more Italians died in the WWI than in WWII.

    Maybe that is why we don't remember it.

  •  The War brought modernity (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Senor Unoball

    in weaponry (World War I and to a lesser extent the Civil War were the first applications of industrialization to warfare, unfortunately no tactics left from pre-industrialized warfare, hence the horrific casualties) and in social mores, especially the beginnings of liberation for women.

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