Yesterday, Sunday Nov. 11, 2018, was the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, when the guns on the Western Front finally fell silent, and the German armies de-mobilized back into Germany, into a shattered economy, food shortages, unemployment, and as the Allied armies, exhausted, breathed a collective sigh of relief as they had narrowly dodged a bullet. I was tempted, yesterday, to write about World War One, and the armistice, but I thought better of it; best to allow some quiet reflection.
My paternal grandfather had fought in World War One, and my maternal grandfather avoided doing so, only because he had already fought with General Pershing against Pancho Villa in Mexico. But it's a lesson in how quickly time flies: just two generations separated me from the unbelievable carnage of that war. Kaiser Wilhelm, who fled into exile into Holland at the end of the war, died in June of 1941, only 16 years before I was born. Though very small and young, two of my older sisters were alive when he was still alive.
It had indeed gone down "right to the wire," for after the surrender of Russia earlier that year in March 1918 to the Central Powers - the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire - Russia, which as it would do in the Second World War, suffered enormous casualties, was plunged into the Bolshevik revolution and the terror which always comes with any form of radical socialism, and into civil war. The Central powers demanded, and got, a huge chunk of European Russia to occupy, creating puppet states in the Baltic States, and (here it comes), the Ukraine. Worse, for the beleaguered Western Allies Britain and France, which had born the brunt of the fighting on the Western Front, four years of fighting had gained them... nothing. Nothing but massive casualties after failed offensive after failed offensive. Think of Paschendale, the Somme, the Nivelle Offensive of 1917 which nearly broke the French armies and created mass mutinies within the French military.
1918 would be the decisive year; everyone knew it. America had entered the war, and as everyone also knew, by the end of 1918 American forces would arrive in force, and sheer numbers would tip the war to the Allies. The Germans would have to strike first, and hard, and fast.
They did. Operation Michael, the first major German offensive of 1918, began on March 21, 1918, after a horrendous artillery barrage. General Erich Ludendorff, virtual military dictator of Germany at the time, had chosen the place for the offensive himself, at the junction of the French and British armies along the Somme river. The British armies would bear the brunt of the attack, which came very close, but ultimately failed, to splitting the armies apart. War colleges have fought and re-fought that offensive - What if Ludendorff or von Hutier had done this? What if General Gough or Field Marshal Haig had done that? and so on - we won't do so here. The war had started with tactics that were modifications of Napoleonic tactics. Four short years later it had ended with the armies of World War One resembling more the armies of World War Two, than the armies with which it began: machine guns, tanks, long range artillery, aircraft... and the first weapons of mass destruction: poison gas. British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, French, Italians, Greeks, Serbs, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Turks, Arabs, and Russians had died in the millions.
In September of 1914, after the war had begun, the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bettmann-Hollweg circulated a memorandum of German war aims, which were to create a European "common market" in central Europe, dominated by the Reichsmark, with France and the Low Countries in a special "most favored nation" trading status. (Sound familiar?) Britain, which by some revisionist lights had engineered the war during the machinations of Edward VII, fought to eliminate a powerful rival, not across the ocean of the Atlantic, but much closer to home across the North Sea. Serbia wanted "greater Serbia" at Austria-Hungary's expense, and was rewarded by being occupied by the Central Powers until "Yugoslavia"(whatever that was) was created by the Versailles system, only to crack up decades later. Romania wanted Transylvania from Hungary, was invaded and occupied in short order, until it too gained it in the post-war settlement, only to lose it to Hungary briefly again during World War Two. It managed to regain Transylvania, but as a rump state of Stalin's Soviet Empire.
The war which had been fought to break German power, failed to do so. That would take another war. And the result of that war was the European Union, with Germany firmly in the driver's seat, dictating disastrous refugee policies to the rest of Europe (Italy, France, Austria, the Netherlands... the list goes on and on). After the Versailles Treaty was signed, Germany immediately began secret rearmament, and Clemenceau's France, determined to "surround" Germany, created the cordon sanitaire with a system of alliances with Czechoslovakia (another Versailles creation like Yugoslavia), Poland, Romania, and so on. In recent years, the idea has revived as the USA is rebasing eastward into Poland and Romania, and has been instrumental in the installation of another puppet government in the Ukraine hearkening back to the Ukrainian Hetmanate, the puppet state created by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March of 1918 that ended the First World War on the Eastern Front. The current President of France says there's no such thing as French culture, while invoking the memory of Marshal Petain, hero of Verdun, and collaborationist of Vichy. Turkey fought to retain its crumbling empire and hold over Muslim holy sites; the British to dismantle it. And as a direct consequence of these machinations, the rise of the abominable (out)house of Saud...
So what have we learned?
Sadly, it seems to me we've learned exactly nothing.
See you on the flip side...