The Great War’s Great Failure


Convivium, 8 November 2018

This Sunday will mark, Father Raymond de Souza writes, 100 years since the guns fell silent to stop the catastrophe of mud and futility that was the First World War. It was the end, too, of Europe’s game of thrones and the fall of Christendom’s altars.

The armistice finally came with a nod to poetry after the ugliness of so brutal a war: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The papers had been signed before dawn that morning, in that famous railway carriage north of Paris, at five o’clock. And between the signing of the armistice and its coming into effect six hours later, some 11,000 casualties were suffered, including some 2,700 deaths. American Sgt. Henry Gunther was killed at 10:59 by Germans frantically trying to wave him off his advance, shouting in broken English that the war was over. He was killed at the literal last minute.

Afterwards there would inquiries and official investigations attempting to answer the anguished letters of the beloved of those last to die. Why the pointless fighting in those last hours? There were more casualties on Armistice Day 1918 than there were on D-Day 1944.

The last hours were an excruciatingly fitting conclusion to the four years of slaughter, a final exclamation point plunged like a dagger into those last few thousand beating hearts. For the question about the dead of 11-11-18 was the question which had haunted the entirety of the “war to end all wars.” Why? Why did it begin? And why, having begun as a confection of folly, were the great men of Europe unable to stop it, even at tenth hour and fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh day of the eleventh month?

The war to end all wars did not even end after the armistice was signed that dark French morning. And in the folly of that armistice the seeds of a greater war were planted. The war to end all wars gave birth instead to decades of war, hot and cold, which brought more misery to more people that ever before imagined.

One hundred years later, exactly one minute after the precise centennial of Sgt. Gunther being shot in the head, we will fall silent this Remembrance Day to remember him and countless others. And we will thus mark the end of the war that ended so much.

The war marked the end of four great empires – the Habsburg emperor, the Russian tsar, the German kaiser and the Ottoman sultan all fell. The last led to the Middle East being carved up by Britain and France, producing the failed states and fake monarchies and fierce regimes that have produced a miserable century for the Arab peoples.

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