This past Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Imperial Crown of Austria-Hungary. He was murdered while visiting the city of Sarajevo, one of the jewels in the Empire he was supposed to reign over. This incident is generally considered the opening shot of the First World War.
There are no words available to us, and no words exist to aptly describe the incredible, horrible, fantastic and furious carnage and tumult of the First World War.
There are no words available to us, and no words exist to aptly describe the First World War’s impact on the human and physical map of this planet. It is our civilizations’ greatest war, the war that changed everything that would come after and make us reconsider everything that came before.
There are no words.
Yet here come some words, these words, scribbled by a mere dilettante, the son of a son of a survivor, a mere ant looking up at this Golem of History that ended 43 years before his birth.
Until the Final War, the war that has not happened yet, the war we cannot imagine, until that final war, no war in human history will ever be such a monument to slaughter, no war will have as much impact on the HUMAN planet; until this species’ final war, the war that has not happened yet, the war we cannot imagine, no war in human history will ever topple as many systems of government, unseat as many Kings; no war will ever sacrifice such a significant portion of an entire continent’s youth; no war will ever result in such a destabilization of economic and political securities; no war will ever result in such universal butchery leading to nothing gained, and no war will ever result in such universal butchery leading to phenomenal change; no war will ever change so much and leave so much as it never was before; and no war will ever impact the world as the First World War did…until the last war. Only the LAST WAR of this species, the LAST WAR of this civilization, will impact the world as much as the First World War, which began one hundred years ago this past Saturday.
Until that Final War, to be fought on a plane we cannot imagine, fought with weapons we cannot conceive of, at a human and social cost the species will not be able to bear, The First World War will be our most dramatic, most fundamentally altering war. Until that final war, the Greatest War, the most Horrific War, the War that left our planet most altered than the way it was before that war began, will be the First World War.
Because The United States was only in the First World War for a relatively brief time – this unimaginable thresher of death lasted four and a quarter years, and our country was involved for just a year and a half – we have been taught relatively little about it. Now, the U.S.’s role was very important – in many ways, we enabled the end of the murderous stalemate that was killing all the young men of Europe – but we did not suffer the incomprehensible death tolls that that the Europeans endured, nor did we suffer the complete alteration of our political, economic, literal, and social geography as the Europeans did.
This was the War to End All Wars. There would be other wars, there will be other wars, but until the final war, the war that began one hundred years ago this past Saturday is The War.
There are no words, but there are facts…and just a few of the Eight Hundred Million Facts about the First World War are staggering:
17 Million Dead…almost half of them civilian non-combatants.
Repeat: 17 MILLION DEAD.
1.2 million DEAD at ONE battle, The Battle of the Somme; That’s the dead of 24 VIETNAMS IN ONE SINGLE BATTLE (and this is said NOT to downplay the tragedies of the American young who died in South East Asia, but to underline, to emphasize, to italicize, the sheer VOLUME OF DEATH poured in the fields of France in one single battle)…
Nearly one million dead at ONE battle, the Battle of Verdun – nearly twice the amount dead in the entire American Civil War, in one single battle…
Half a million dead at the Battle of Gallipoli, another Half a Million dead at the Battle of the Marnes…to CONCEIVE of these numbers, imagine this: THINK OF ONE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBING EVERY DAY, EVERY HOUR FOR 19 YEARS. That would be the toll of the Battle of Gallipoli, or the Battle of the Marne (NOT “and” but “OR”). CAN YOU FUCKING IMAGINE? I make this sick and sorry comparison NOT to lessen the impact that we have suffered from the sickness of social and political terrorism, but to underline the monstrous toll of these battles, which are beyond the scale of any kind of suffering that we as Americans have ever had to experience because of war.
The First World War also bought about…
The End of 1,000 Years of Russian Tsardom…and the creation of the nations of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and modern Poland…
The End of 700 Years of the Ottoman Empire, the kingdom who had stabilized the middle east since the middle ages…
The End of half a millennia of the Austria-Hungary Empire, ending the lineage of the Holy Roman Empire (and with the fall of the house of Hapsburg, the creation of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Hungary);
And lest we forget…that First World War led to The Bankrupting of Germany by unbelievably punitive War reparations, leading to the worst inflation and economic collapse the world has ever seen, leading to the rise of a Nationalist right wing who marched Europe into another World War…
The list could and should go on and on. We should never forget that
We cannot and should not even think of the idea of War without remembering the war that began one hundred years ago this weekend. Despite my truly meager attempts, in which I have stupidly attempted to trace the shadow of the chalk outline around this fearsome scar on history, there really are no words.
I leave you with a poem about the carnage, and the generation of men caught in the maw of death, by Wilfred Owen, the great, beautiful poet who died in battle, only one week before the end of the war:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.