News analysis

The Great War remembered

WWI resulted in changes in govt and warfare, and 100 years on, it still has lessons for all

At the 11th hour on the 11th day in the 11th month precisely a century ago, the guns fell silent throughout the world, marking the end of what at that time was called the "Great War".

This "auspicious" time was meant to conclude all fighting, supposedly forever. This was to be the "war to end all wars", as the politicians of that time were fond of saying. Only that, of course, it was nothing of the kind. That war is now known as merelyWorld War I because it was followed by an even greater confrontation only two decades after the first one ended.

To our generation, World War I stands for just pointless carnage. This was not a clash of principles or ways of life, a confrontation between good and evil, as World War II certainly was.

And when the guns ultimately fell silent, people were already struggling to understand what it was all about.

"The ending, in its ferocity, bloodiness, and uselessness, contained the entire war in microcosm. The fighting went on for the hollowest of reasons: no one knew how to stop it," American historian Joseph Persico wrote decades later, summing up the views shared by all the generations which followed after that frosty European winter day in November of 1918, when the guns went silent.

Yet in many subtle ways, the scars of that war are still with us, and everywhere.


British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron visiting the Thiepval Memorial in northern France last Friday as part of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice today. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The powers of the state, as we know them now, with governments' ability to commandeer and deploy all national resources in emergencies, are largely World War I inventions. Before that war, there were few border checks between states, and almost no immigration control; all the paraphernalia of passports, visas and immigration checks we are so familiar with today dates back to that wartime.


A crowd in New York's Times Square holding up copies of newspapers with the headline at the end of World War I on Nov 11, 1918. The impact of the war is still visible today and it serves as a historical warning to us, the writer says. PHOTO: REUTERS

Before World War I, the idea that a state should stock national supplies of food and fuel or provide universal medical services was unimaginable. Today, these are considered as the very basic duties of any government. On the eve of World War I, Britain's internal security service numbered precisely 16 people, and that included the office caretaker. When the war ended four years later, tens of thousands of Britons were employed in intelligence collection and analysis, and the positions created largely remain to this day.

The Great War spurred a technological race which continues to define our own leading technological races. Aerial photography, wireless communications, sophisticated encryption methods and missile technology were all developed a century ago, and countries strive to maintain their edge in these fields just as much today as they have done in 1918.

No historical comparison is ever perfect, but Asia today vaguely resembles the Europe of the early 20th century, with some powers on their way down and others on their way up, with plenty of trade integration but little political integration and arms races everywhere. That does not mean that another world war is in the offing, but it does mean that we would be well advised to look at the lessons from a century ago with some care.

And we regard the use of poison gas in the current war in Syria or the use of nerve substances in Britain earlier this year as particularly heinous crimes precisely because these were the weapons first deployed in World War I and their horrific consequences remain etched on the minds of all subsequent generations.

Although primarily a European war, the conflict ultimately embroiled all European colonies. African soldiers - and particularly the fearless Senegalese - were deployed to defend territorial France. Britain enlisted up to one million Africans from its colonies, and over 100,000 of them died fighting for their colonial master, more than the World War I deaths of Australia, New Zealand and Canada combined.

Singaporeans volunteered or were conscripted, and no less than 90,000 members of Britain's Chinese Labour Corps were in the battlefields of France, units whose sacrifice for the British Empire is memorably summed up with one sentence engraved on the tombstone of every Chinese who fell in that war: "A good reputation endures forever."

And then, there was India, which supplied 1.4 million soldiers, the biggest contingent of any country in the British Empire. Some of India's men were deployed on the front line in Europe within a month after the start of the war in 1914, and by the end of the war, they even changed the English language. The word "chat" for a casual conversation is allegedly derived from the Hindi word "chatt", which means a louse; the practice of soldiers sitting around in a group, picking lice out of their clothing, came to be known as "chatting".

But although the European empires of Britain and France emerged from the conflict ostensibly strengthened, the seeds of their destruction were also sown in World War I. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India, supported the enlistment of Indians in Britain's ranks with the argument that "if the empire wins with the help of our army, it is obvious that we would secure the rights we want". The fact that nothing of the kind happened radically changed Gandhi's subsequent tactics.

The Australians and New Zealanders also acquired their own national identity as a result of their soldiers' searing experience of the botched Gallipoli campaign, in which 10,000 of their colonial troops perished, an event which to this day is the single most important annual national commemoration for both nations.

World War I was also the first time Japan emerged as a global player. Little did France or Britain suspect that, a mere two decades after the end of World War I, the Japanese whom they regarded as their allies would end up seizing Europe's Asian empires.

The United States also emerged at the end of the World War I in a role it continues to play to this day: that of Europe's ultimate defender and the world's security arbiter. The British and French empires would limp on until the 1960s, but their death knell was sounded a century ago today.

However, the biggest impact of that Great War on us today is in the form of a dark warning. On the eve of World War I, Europe seemed more integrated and peaceful than ever. In 1910, British journalist Norman Angell wrote a book arguing that the economic interests of European powers were so intertwined and their national education so advanced that wars were rendered both irrational and impossible. His book The Great Illusion sold over two million copies and ultimately won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet four years after Mr Angell made his prediction, the continent slid into a horrible war not because anyone wanted it, but because nobody knew how to prevent it.

The British were worried that they would be overtaken in industrial and military power by the Germans. The Germans, in turn, knew that they were on their way up, but wanted to accelerate their ascent.

The French were looking for any opportunity for revenge against the Germans, while the Austro-Hungarians were looking to avenge their honour with their smaller neighbours. And Russia wanted to strike first because it believed that it had no alternative.

Everyone piled in oblivious of the consequences; the Europeans "sleepwalked" into the war, as Australian historian Chris Clark aptly put it in his recently published history of the period.

No historical comparison is ever perfect, but Asia today vaguely resembles the Europe of the early 20th century, with some powers on their way down and others on their way up, with plenty of trade integration but little political integration, and arms races everywhere. That does not mean that another world war is in the offing, but it does mean that we would be well advised to look at the lessons from a century ago with some care.

By a quirk of fate, the graves of both the first British soldier to be killed in the Great War and the last British soldier to fall in that war are buried in a plot in France. And, by another bitter twist of history, the cemetery in which they rest happens to be a German one, built by the enemy they fought.

No other example is more poignant for Europe's modern history. And no better contribution to the memory of an estimated 40 million others who perished in World War I can be made than to study and understand the events which consumed an entire previous generation.

If only in order to prevent similar events from consuming us.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 11, 2018, with the headline 'The Great War remembered'. Print Edition | Subscribe