“War is hell.” — Gen. William Sherman, 1879
At 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the armistice to end World War I was signed. Germany had lost the war, and the armistice, or truce, ended four years of horrific fighting resulting in over 40 million casualties.
World War I began when Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, after a Serbian revolutionary assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28. On Aug. 1, Germany, Austria’s ally, declared war on Russia, Serbia’s ally. On Aug. 4, Germany invaded Belgium and declared war on France, so Britain declared war on Germany.
Japan and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) were quickly pulled into the war. Eventually, Italy, Canada, Greece, and 29 other countries became involved.
America entered the war on April 6, 1917. President Woodrow Wilson spoke to Congress on April 2, urging them to declare war, stating, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” This was to be the “War to end all wars.”
WW I, or the Great War, started in the summer of 1914. By Christmas, the armies in Belgium and France, on the Western Front, were at a stalemate, unable to advance in either direction. To hold their ground, soldiers dug huge trenches where they would live for the next four years.
In April 2003, I was privileged to take a trip to Europe. I visited several WWI and WWII sites in France. One of these was Verdun, a beautiful city which was the site of one of the deadliest battles of WWI. A terrific museum there brings much of this history to life.
The Battle of Verdun lasted from Feb. 21 to Dec. 18, 1916. The intense fighting in such a small area devastated the land. One shocking museum exhibit showed how the mud became one of the deadliest aspects of the fighting.
When it rained, the churned up ground resulted in mud that could be 10 feet deep. If a soldier stepped into this mud, he could disappear, sometimes with no trace of what had happened. If other soldiers were nearby, they often couldn’t pull the victim out, so the dying soldier would beg for his comrades to shoot him so he wouldn’t slowly drown in the mud. The museum exhibit showed the agony these soldiers went through.
After 10 months of fighting, the French won the battle at a total cost of 306,000 dead and 409,000 wounded. Verdun is just one example of the horror that was WWI.
By the time the armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, nearly 20 million people had died. There were over 10 million military deaths and 8 million civilian deaths, mostly from war-related malnutrition and disease. The U.S. had 116,516 military deaths. There were also over 20 million wounded, injured and diseased, both military and civilian. No one was spared.
Because of the unimaginable cost of the war, both in people and money, world leaders decided to try to prevent a war on this scale from ever happening again. Several people created proposals for an international council where nations could settle problems without war.
The Paris Peace Conference convened in 1919 to work out the details of the peace treaty with Germany. Proposals for an international organization were part of the discussion. On June 28, 1919, the League of Nations was formed when 44 countries signed the Covenant of the League of Nations.
Even though Wilson was a strong proponent of the League, the U.S. never became a signatory. That meant we had no authority to help deal with the rise of fascism in Europe or Japan’s push for dominance in the Pacific. The weaknesses of the League were one of the contributing factors that led to WWII, just 21 years after the end of WWI.
After WWII, in 1945, the world created a stronger international group, the United Nations. The U.S. has been a major leader in the U.N. After 73 years, we have not had WWIII.
Now we have those wanting to abolish the U.N., who advocate for more war. As General Sherman said, “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”
Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, 2018, will be the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. After a century, have we gotten any wiser?
Jeanette Strong is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.