Remembering “The Great War”, its causes and the sacrifice of millions

World War I (1914-1918, which beforehand was referred to as “The Great War” was so named because it was the largest conflict in history to date, which of course would only be surpassed by its successor. This gruesome conflict was of such a scale because it involved the full force of industrialised European empires fighting each other, which led to the deaths of tens of millions of young men. From Britain, 876,084 soldiers were killed, gutting an entire generation. The scale and trauma of this conflict was of such an impact that it has become our solemn tradition to remember them and their sacrifice year upon year, as well as those who perished in World War II and later conflicts.

The first World War represented the boiling point of competing European empires who wrestled each other for global power and dominance. Before World War I, there were many wars to name, but because nations were less industrialised, less connected and less centralised, they tended to be smaller and therefore, less consequential. Once upon a time, men fought each other with swords and shields, localising conflicts to surrounding towns and villages. As William of Normandy battled Harold Godwinson for the throne of England, life went on as normal for most of the population.

Similarly, England and France feuded on and off for centuries. Even as modernity arrived and events such as the Napoleonic wars taken place, this was rarely a personal concern for most. In fact, you could say that in those distant past times the frequency of war was far greater precisely because its consequences were far less felt, but the rise of modernity and the creation of total war, soon changed all that. As nations became industrialised and developed comprehensive logistical and communications systems, such as railways, postal systems, telegrams and phone lines, the scale of their military capabilities and involvement increased accordingly, because their resources and ability to act was so much larger.

Because of this, nations were able to make larger armies, build stronger and more destructive weapons, and therefore elevate war from being a localised set of skirmishes to an all encompassing machine of destruction which would involve the entire nation as one unit. The first industrialised war to occur in human history was in fact the American Civil War, and the scale of brutality which it brought was but a small foreshadowing of what was to come in Europe. World War I would be something completely unprecedented.

In the build up to World War I, the British Empire had long established itself as the world’s foremost Imperial power, having defeated Napoleon’s challenge a century earlier and established the world’s powerful navy and industrial base. However, Britain’s dominance was waning as a rival emerged in the form of the German Empire. The German Empire was a scientific and industrial giant, but its position in the middle of continental Europe, unlike Britain’s island safety, was very vulnerable. Germany faced France to the west and Russia to the east, who soon allied with Britain to defend their respective interests. As Germany rose as a great power, tensions between the two surged.

Because Germany felt it was strategically “boxed” between the two countries, had limited natural resources and feared being surrounded, it created a foreign policy and military strategy which was premised on aggression and “offense as the best form of defense.” Fearing it would be quickly surrounded by its two neighbours, Germany’s plan in the event of war was to use overwhelming force to eliminate both as fast as possible, relying on the surprise of a pre-emptive attack. This is of course had the adverse effect of actually heightening the probability of war in the process.

Germany’s allies consisted of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey). However, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, which in turn led the Russian Empire to declare war on Austria. Germany of course was now roped into the conflict with Russia, and therefore believing that war with France and Britain was an inevitability, made the decision to attempt to pre-emptively conquer France in a lightning offensive with a surprise advance through (neutral) Belgium, which affirmed Britain’s entry into the war.

Germany’s initial plan to capture Paris, however, failed and the consequence of this was that the western front of World War I became a protracted and bloody stalemate dictated by trench warfare. All nations involved fully mobilised their populations of young men and using the technology of railways were able to send them to the frontlines. The tactical stagnation of the war led to a very large volume of deaths, again unprecedented in history.

However, because Germany was not able to defeat the naval power of the British Empire, who placed a maritime embargo on it, and similarly because its inland position and lack of natural resources became geographically disadvantageous, Germany suffered more in the long war of attrition. The entry of the United States into the conflict in 1917 became the final tipping point whereby Germany was now outgunned and outnumbered. Deteriorating living conditions back home led the German population to revolt, the Kaiser abdicated and Germany soon surrendered, with the armistice coming into play on November 11th, 1918.

As a result, the immense sacrifice and loss of young men in this destructive conflict has not been forgotten nearly a century later, manifest through the symbolism of a poppy. The sacrifice these young men undertaken was honourable, yet in some cases it was also tragic as some battles, such as the Somme, were ill played and produced a needless loss of life, this was perfectly captured by the traumatic and upsetting ending of the otherwise hilarious sitcom, Blackadder. Yet because of that, the fallen have become a symbol of defending the sovereignty and liberty of the nation at a cost to themselves, and therefore they are never forgotten.

As such, after World War I every town and village in Britain constructed a cenotaph to honour their glorious dead, with that in Sunderland’s Mowbray Park being one of the most beautiful in the country. It has become a glue which holds us together as a nation, one which we take remorse and pride in. Although more wars have happened since, the scale and horror of World War I was truly unprecedented to history and that’s why its impact has been so long lasting.