Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October 1918: A World at War Longs for Peace

2018 has been a hard year, and it may yet get worse.

With all the violent events in the world today and the many difficult challenges we face in daily life, it's easy to forget the past. And yet historians have the important task of helping us to remember, not simply for the lessons to be learned but above all because it is natural for human beings to commemorate the past. We are linked to our ancestors whose particular circumstances and decisions have had a fundamental impact on our world today—on who we are and how we live. It is good to remember, to celebrate what has been accomplished and mourn what has been lost.

It may seem ironic that the conflict that was nearing its end a hundred years ago was known at the time (and for a short period thereafter) as "The Great War." But its immense destructiveness had no prior parallel in human history.

In the Fall of 1918, the forces of Britain, France, the United States, and many other allies were engaged in what would prove to be the final campaign in Europe (known as the "hundred days"). At the time, however, there was little hope of the war ending in 1918. Though the Western Front was finally rolling back, the allies didn't know how desperate the situation was in Germany itself (where social disorder was increasing and government change was imminent). So the fighting continued, and the fighting was fierce.

Indeed, October 1918 was when United States military forces were finally engaged extensively in combat. The U.S.A. had done much already since 1917 to support its allies economically and militarily (by providing armaments and enlarging the ranks of allied soldiers). For the Americans, however, the great massive bloody brawl of combat didn't start until September 26, 1918, with 22 divisions and 1.2 million soldiers in the north of France taking up a 47 day "battle" known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Reckoned as a single event, it remains the deadliest battle in U.S. history, with more than 26,000 killed (nearly half the death toll of American military in the entire Vietnam War).

It was a small number compared to an entire generation of millions of European men who had been thrown against one another month after month for four years. The huge U.S. army pushed back the German line in this region until the political collapse at home led to a rapid capitulation by Germany to Allied terms for the Armistice of November 11.

The immediate problems facing Europe, of course, were far from over.

The unprecedented scope, the sheer numbers of those involved, the magnitude of the events of 1914-1918 stretched over the whole world. Soldiers came from all corners of the earth to fight in Europe, Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East.

People had already begun to speak of this unique drama as a "world war," though it was not common to assign it a "number" in 1918. People hoped that it would be the only war of its kind, that the human race would find ways to ensure that this nightmare would never return.

In fact, in only took twenty years for this "Great War" to acquire the more prosaic designation of "World War I." Future historians may look on this whole period (the 20th century and beyond) as the era of violence, tumult, and tireless technological invention that introduced for the first time in history a "fully interactive" world.

We know only too well today that this instantaneously interactive, globally interconnected world is a dangerous place. At the same time we know that it can be the source of much enrichment, leading to a deeper awareness of our common humanity expressed in a multitude of physical differences, ethnic traditions, styles, and cultures.

For better or for worse, the destinies of the earth's peoples are woven together in ways far more intricate than anyone could have imagined 100 years ago. For better or for worse, our responsibility for one another is greater than ever.