Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first Armistice Day: 11/11/18. The guns fell silent; the fighting was over. There would be treaties to conclude and exchanges to be made; but for the soldiers, 11am came as a time of relief and reflection. 100 years on from that momentous day, families around the world can think about how their ancestors played some part in the Great War.
This war was truly monstrous in its scope: fighting took place on different fronts; empires drew in their colonies and dominions; and the extended trench warfare became a hell that no-one had expected at the beginning of the conflict. Truly, this war changed the world: it finished the Belle Époque and spawned a new generation of Nietzsche’s descendants: nihilists and existentialists.
Left with the question, “What were we fighting for?”, it robbed many of the truth that sometimes wars must be fought. It is my hope that in the reflection on the senselessness of WWI, people will not forget that Allied soldiers in WWII gave their lives for an important cause: to destroy the Nazis and Imperial Japan; to vindicate the principle of human dignity; and to protect their families and friends from vicious onslaught.
WWI destroyed the old order of Europe: triggered by a complex set of alliances and imperialist ambitions, it ended the ruling power of the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and Romanovs. All people paid for the folly of this war. The soldiers suffered appalling conditions at the front, hurt by disruptions to supply lines and wounded by appalling weapons such as mustard gas. At home, civilians worked in the munitions factories and saw their own means of living cut short as naval warfare disrupted trade. By the end of the war, families in Germany were mixing sawdust with flour to make bread. Once the war had ended, people were then subjected to the dreaded Spanish flu, causing somewhere between 50 and 100 million deaths.
On this day of reflection, as we think about the soldiers, it is important to remember that many never came home. Their families had that awful loss added to the other suffering set out above. Children grew up who had barely known their fathers; wives were left to remarry or remain widows, haunted by the memory of their husbands’ deaths. Some gave their lives heroically, trying to protect their fellow soldiers or helpless civilians. Others simply fell in action or were carried off by diseases that thrived in the unsanitary conditions of the trenches.
Such trying conditions made it hard for a man to remember his humanity, but these men somehow carried on. It is true that there were outbreaks of mutiny, but the overall picture is one of perseverance and insight. The famous Christmas Day football match of 1914 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce) allowed soldiers on both sides to see the humanity in each other and know, however silently, that most of them were not in favour of pointless aggression. This war, for all the initial fervour of joining up, was not a people’s war. It was a politicians’ war, brought on by ties of honour and the perceived need to protect national interests.
As I bring this post to a close, mindful that it is impossible to do justice to the memory of the fallen and the survivors in so few words, I would like to leave you with this thought. Our ancestors struggled through a terrible situation: some lost their faith, while others kept it. They are an example to us that amidst all the rage, which they must have felt towards their political leaders and those of the other side, we must keep a calm head, we must not let our own anger eclipse the vision and compassion of Christ. As you look through all the poems and songs that reflect on the Great War today, I invite you to look at one that pre-dated it, Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, and see if you can see some glimmer of light that made it through that dreadful conflict.