Normally I am not someone who will talk about “turning points” and “key moments in history.” Quite simply, those things are much more rare than folks like to believe. Most of the time those events and moments and people that we like to describe as “key” and “special” are not. Instead they are the inevitable outcome of events and tides and movement far outside of their immediate scope.
If you went back in time and decided to “snuff out” Julius Caesar, for instance, you would do nothing to prevent the rise of the Roman Empire. All you would do is delay that rise for a few years…delay it and put another face on it. Perhaps an Aemilius, or a Cornelius or Domitius, would have stepped onto the stage and taken on Caesar’s “role.” Whatever the name of the player, however, the demise of the Republic was written in stone; there was no single turning-point, no crossing of the Rubicon, there was just the evolution of society and economics and politics…
That being said, there ARE a few true turning points in history, a few events that really can be described as cataclysmic and world-shaking. The most recent of those events happened a hundred years ago…it happened, and it really did change everything: World War One.
No, it wasn’t “the war to end all wars” — war, I’m sorry to say, will never go away so long as humans are, well, human. What WWI did do was completely shatter the “old world” and set the stage for all the years, and all the travails and triumphs, since.
Now, a lot of folks would argue that WWI can’t be described in such stark terms, that it’s genesis can and should be described in the years and decades prior to the start of hostilities. The war, after all, was not about the murder of some random Austro-Hungarian prince by a bunch of Balkan separatists. No, the war itself was an inevitable clash between the Great Powers of the day, and is fully a “natural outgrowth” of the power-politics and real politik of the day.
So why do I still describe it as a “turning point”?
It was the first time the gentry and upper classes — the officer-class — lived and suffered and died right alongside the poor enlisted bastards. It was the first time the barriers were truly broken down, the first time some landed aristocrat ate week-old horsemeat and got trenchfoot right alongside the guy that cleaned his freaking toilets before the war.
It was the first time death and pain and trauma became truly “democratic.”
Yes, it was also the first industrialized war, the first war on a total, unlimited and all-but unstoppable basis. Yes, it was the first time technology dominated and determined tactics and strategy. Yes, it was the first time war became an “industry.” But…
But, none of those things changed the world anywhere near as much as the utter destruction of social and economic differences in the trenches. As a percentage of the various national populations, far more young men fought in WWI than in any other conflict up to that time. It was all-encompassing…and because of that, it was all-leveling.
Just how do you go back to “the ways things were” when the supposedly better, smarter and more well-born officer next to you spent the entire Battle of Paeschendale sobbing uncontrollably, unable to move or speak or fight while you had to protect and guide him?
In the trenches, I should explain, the “democratization” of war worked. The officers knew it, and so did the men. They could — and did — live and fight and survive together in ways their fathers and grandfathers would have considered both unnatural and dangerous.
And they were…oh, yes they very much were.
They were dangerous not during the war itself, but in the days after…
In the days when every town lost not just “someone”, but many someones. In the days when an entire generation of European males were decimated by wounds, disease, death and trauma. In the days when everyone, no matter for which side they fought, returned to countries they no longer recognized as home. In the days when everything was different.
How do you go back to what you had before? How do you turn the clock back?
Not even WWII changed the world quite so profoundly, in spite of the even greater death toll.
The history nerd in me wants to add all kinds of thoughts to this — thoughts about the pointlessness of WWI, and about the absurdity of it’s beginning, and about its almost criminally inept conduct by all sides. Thoughts about the seeds it sowed that led directly to WWII…and how it profoundly affected and controlled those who were commanding nations and armies in that conflict.
I half-want to get in to those thoughts, but this isn’t the time. No, I’ve prattled and rambled quite enough, I think. I will, however, add a couple of bits below for further reading. It’s important, I think, to do so because we don’t spend enough time learning and understanding WWI — we certainly don’t learn just how and why it changed the world…and that leaves the door far, far too open to not learning from it, and to repeating it…
Some suggested reading:
—The First World War by John Keegan. Pay special attention to his description of just how the war actually began…how the deaths of 40 million people can be traced to the all-powerful hand of bureaucratic timetables and schedules…
—Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves. Graves was a member of the small group of upper-class poets, writers and creators (he is most famous for writing I, Claudius) who fought in the trenches as junior officers, and it changed the world for him. Goodbye is the first volume in his autobiography, and is…it’s…well… Just read it.
—Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie. World War One is all about the blood and suffering of the trenches, but it’s start came on the water in the “battleship race” between Germany and Britain. More importantly, it came in the family feud between two cousins who wanted to live up to their grandmother’s (perceived) expectations — unfortunately, those two unhappy men happened to be the Kaiser of Germany and the King of England. Grandma Queen Victoria has some ‘splainin to do.
And now I’m going to do something I seldom do on this blog: quote extensively from another writer. I’m not a huge poetry guy, by the way. I’ve read thousands of the, but I’ve committed to memory just three…the three that are the most powerful for me. One of those three was written by another member of that war-torn, literary circle I mentioned above. Unlike Graves, however, Wilfred Owen didn’t make it home…
Dulce et Decorum EstBent double, like old beggars under sacks,Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,And towards our distant rest began to trudge.Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hootsOf gas-shells dropping softly behind.Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumblingFitting the clumsy helmets just in time,But someone still was yelling out and stumblingAnd flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.In all my dreams before my helpless sight,He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.If in some smothering dreams, you too could paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in,And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.