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The End of the War to End All Wars

The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller


It was widely called “The Great War” in Britain and the British Empire, both when it was being fought and long after it was over. It was anything but great. It was a colossal disaster whose effects are still with us.

Millions of people latched onto a phrase that its termination made “the world safe for democracy.” But in retrospect the war and the calamitous treaty which officially declared it finished slowed the inexorable march toward world democracy for at least three generations. Democracy would have flourished far more widely had neither World Wars I nor II occurred.

There were no serious political or international disputes which demanded that millions of Europeans and others should take up arms against one another in August of 1914. Instead, the Great Powers --- the Hohenzollern German Empire, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Romanov Russian Empire, the Windsor British Empire, and the French Republic --- all began blazing away with zealous abandon. In her outstanding history of the conflict, Barbara Tuchman described its genesis with the simple phrase, The Guns of August.

The Germans predicted they would easily win the war in six weeks or so. The British and French believed it would take a bit longer for them to be victorious. In historical fact, the conflict dragged on for more than four blood-drenched years.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was a totally insufficient factor for flinging Europe into the largest armed conflagration the world had every experienced up to that time. The Habsburg’s death was merely the trigger which detonated the bombs which had long been set in place by the competing sides.  Everyone was looking for an incident to start the fight, and the assassination was the precipitating happenstance. However, by no means was it the cause of World War I, because there was no real cause.

A close investigation of the years leading up to August, 1914 does illustrate growing international tensions, but there was nothing of such magnitude that it warranted  nine million soldiers being killed, another twenty-one million wounded, and an additional million-plus civilians killed or wounded. Instead, the pre-war period was one of nationalistic impulses fed and fanned by four crowned heads of state and one elected president.

Three of the monarchs were cousins in varying degrees. The head-of-state most eager for battle was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Kaiser is German for “Caesar.” He was related to Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Czar is Russian for “Caesar.” The monarch of the British Empire was King George V. He was a mere king, although his grandmother had been deemed “Empress of India.” But he too was a royal cousin to the other two.

World War I was called “The War to End All Wars.” As everyone born since 1918 knows, it failed in its pre-war hype. A case can be made that it spawned several other small wars in Europe in the two decades after it was over, and unquestionably its ill-considered aftermath was the primary reason for the outbreak of World War II.

Of the ten million people killed in World War I, ninety percent were members of various militaries. Only ten percent were civilians. Of the sixty million killed in World War II, roughly half were military and half civilians. Disease and malnutrition took the lives of some of the soldiers, but a much higher percentage of the civilians.

There were two fronts in World War I. Eastern Front battles were widely fought mainly in Eastern Europe and Russia, while the Western Front battles were fought almost exclusively in a small area of northern and northwestern France.

Ghastly trench warfare characterized the cataclysmic clashes in France. It sometimes took days or months to gain just a few hundred yards, and large new swaths were never captured or held for more than a few months on the Western Front. The names of the villages where the battles took place are legendary, but they are all within a radius of less than a hundred miles.

As an example of the carnage, the British staged an offensive against the Germans in April of 2017. It occurred near Ypres, on the border between France and Belgium, close to the North Sea. In five days the British lost 160,000 killed and wounded men, and they gained only 7000 yards for their efforts.

On the Western Front, hundreds of millions of rifle and machine gun shots were fired in both directions, and millions of cannon shells were hurled back and forth. The First World War produced the first victims of what we now call “PTSD” --- post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then it was called “shell-shock.” The relentless barrage of bullets and shells turned the brains of many of the soldiers into quivering cerebral jelly, whether or not they were ever hit by a piece of live ammunition. Many never recovered, and came home to encounter either pity or scorn.

Conditions in the trenches were wet, miserable, unsanitary, unhealthy, unappealing, cramped, dirty, smelly, and utterly demoralizing. Wet boots caused wet feet which caused a plethora of foot problems. The integrity of skin easily broke down in the trenches. Boredom and terror both took huge tolls on the poor souls who languished there. Minor injuries could cause severe pain or fairly rapid death when there were no effective painkillers or antibiotics.

In addition, poison gas was utilized in WWI. Tens of thousands died from it, and hundreds of thousands fought its disastrous effects for the rest of their painfully shortened lives.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Tender Is the Night, one of the characters was explaining to a group of tourists what it was like in the Somme Valley during the war. “See that little stream?” he told them matter-of-factly. “We could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a whole month to walk to it --- a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.”

Black Jack Pershing was the commanding general of the American forces. He became the only six-star “General of the Armies” in the history of the American military. Had he served in World War II, he would have risen no higher than a five-star “General of the Army.” However, America was feeling its oats in 1918, and it never experienced the exhaustion and disillusionment of the original Russian, German, Turkish, British, or French combatants who rallied to the guns of August in 1914.  

 Isolationists in the United States strongly resisted America becoming involved in the war. Like President Roosevelt in World War II, President Wilson in the First World War initially opposed going to war. Nevertheless, America supported the Allies with trade, food, weapons, and moral support. As events played out, Wilson, like Roosevelt after him, became more convinced that the U.S. could not permanently avoid joining the Allies, and so he played his political cards carefully so that when the time came, Congress would overwhelmingly support the call to arms.

The German Navy began to sink American ships suspected of carrying armaments and supplies to the Allies. Sometimes the suspicions were valid, and sometimes not. The loss of ships began to shape the American public consciousness regarding the war. When the Germans sank the British ocean liner Lusitania with well over a hundred American civilians lost, and then four American merchant ships in quick succession, it seemed to be the straw that broke the back of conservative isolationism.

In only the fourth of the five times the United States Congress ever declared war, it did so at President Wilson’s behest on April 2, 1917. However, because both the people and the government had wanted to remain as neutral as possible, and had not actively prepared for war, it took until the end of 1917 before American troops arrived in France in significant numbers. Furthermore, not until April of 1918 did Americans engage in any serious battles of their own with the enemy.

Americans are familiar with such place names as Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, the Argonne Forest, and Sedan, but to the people among the original Allies on the Western Front, it is river names and the cities and towns on their banks which are still remembered: the Marne, the Somme, the Meuse. Near these rivers the carnage was the most nightmarishly lethal.

Perhaps George M. Cohan, an Irish immigrant to the U.S., galvanized and popularized American involvement in World War I like no one else. One of his most famous wartime songs was called Over There. It declared to everyone that “the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming/ The drums rum-tumming everywhere.” And, lest anyone forget, they were reminded that “it won’t be over till we’re over, over there.”       

Many Americans believe that “we” won the war. Few Europeans have ever seen it that way. We happened to enter the war just when the Germans and their allies were falling into irreparable disarray.

By late 2018, the lengthy and seemingly endless stalemate was coming to a close. The Russian Revolution and the communists overthrew the czar. Ultimately, he and his family were executed. As soon as the czar was removed from the throne, the communists surrendered the Russian involvement in the war, and in late 2017 Germany forced the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, ceding many millions of acres of Russian and Eastern European territory to the Germans. By early November of 1918, two of Kaiser Wilhelm’s major allies, the monarchs of Ottoman Turkey and Austro-Hungary, had abdicated. The German Navy mutinied in Kiel on November 3, and six days later there was a general strike in Germany, leaving Central and Eastern Europe in political chaos. The Kaiser quietly sneaked off to neutral Holland, from which he never returned.     

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of November, 1918, the War to End All Wars ended. An indescribable tragedy is that it never lived up to the optimistic title proposed for it before the gargantuan struggle began.

Throughout Russia, Europe, and Great Britain, as well as in Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere, there are thousands of World War I memorials. I was a student at Trinity College of Glasgow University in Scotland in 1962-63. Driving around Scotland, England, and Wales at that time, I was struck by how many villages and towns had a marker in the town center with the names of all the men from the community who had been killed in the Great War. There were not nearly as many World War II monuments, even though more soldiers were killed in that conflict. Perhaps the zeal to construct war monuments decreases as the carnage increases.

In one of my classes at Trinity College, the professor offered the opinion that when Britain became one of the primary allies against the Axis powers in World War II, they essentially lost their position as the Number One Power in the world. To this day I look back with shame at my arrogance for my response to his observation. “It is my opinion, Professor Henderson,” I said, “that Britain was first dislodged from its place in the sun by its involvement in World War I.” (He was one of the most beloved and influential professors of my entire academic career.) With a deeply rueful look on his face which I had neither anticipated nor intended to provoke, Ian Henderson sighed, “You may be right, Mr. Miller; you may be right.”

Americans do not and cannot have the same thoughts or feelings regarding the First World War as the citizens of those nations which entered it in August, 2014. The price they paid and the losses they experienced are too deep adequately to be felt by citizens of any nations which did not endure those four long, calamitous years. 

However, it was not really the British or French leaders who together dictated the terms that ended the war. It was the Fourteen Points of the moralizing American President that became the framework for the post-armistice diplomatic debacle.

Woodrow Wilson was a stiff, stern, unrelenting moralist. To some extent he may have been an exaggerated personification of his Presbyterian-pastor father. A professor-turned-university-president-turned-state-governor-turned-U.S.-President, Wilson demanded an unconditional surrender at the end of World War I and a punitive peace treaty. There can be little doubt that the Treaty of Versailles more than adequately fulfilled those demands. 

The seeds of World War II were liberally sown in the Treaty of Versailles. For fifteen years after the war, Germany was in an inflationary economic maelstrom. With the great benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that a young corporal named Adolf Hitler should thereafter quickly rise to become the leader of a fascist alliance which united to attack most of the allies of the First War in the Second War. Again, the United States did not join the fray when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Not until Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. Navy and Army in Pearl Harbor over two years later did the U.S. declare war on the Axis Powers. By then it had no other political or military alternative.

It was not World War I Generals Hindenburg or Ludendorff who urged Germans to rally around a Nazi flag; it was a brilliant orator with a twisted mind and a grossly inflated notion of his own military prowess who turned Germany into a world-dominating war machine in less than five years. Older men were sufficiently mature to comprehend the horrors of the First World War. They had no appetite for preparing for a second one. Hitler had lived in the trenches, but he had been young, and he may have been incapable of intellectually absorbed the deepest lessons of the trenches.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points were wonderfully and fatally idealistic. Each of the defeated nations was to determine for itself what it wanted to become --- so long as they became democratic. Making the world safe for democracy was Wilson’s watchword as the world emerged from the massive destruction of men and morale in World War I. 

The Fourteen Points directed that there were to be open covenants made within and among nations. Shortly thereafter, the American, British, French, and Italian heads of state went into closed sessions to pass judgment on what the defeated nations were planning, effectively negating the vaunted open covenants.

Most important of all to Wilson, however, was the establishment of a League of Nations. He insisted on that above everything else. The League did come into being, but without the imperative legislative support of the United States Senate. On November 19, 1919, the Senate voted down U.S. participation in the League, by a vote of 39 in favor and 55 opposed.

The American rejection of the League of Nations and the European affirmation of it symbolized the irreparably fractured results of World War I. Whatever may have been the factors which impelled Europe and much of the rest of the developed world to enter into a devastating war with one another, none of them succeeded in whatever they intended. However, the Treaty of Versailles was symptomatic of the failure of the war effort; it was not the result of it.

The United States of America was by far the least damaged major nation which became involved in World War I. Every other nation-state in the conflict emerged weaker than it was before the war began.

It was not national strength which led to World War II; it was international weakness. Having endured unspeakable hardships, no one wanted quickly to re-militarize --- except the states which had been declared defeated by the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Versailles: Russia, Germany, the former Austro-Hungary, and Turkey. By 1940, Hitler was willing to include Italy and Japan in his fascist alliance against the World War I victors. Nationalism again was on the rise after Wilson’s internationalism fizzled in the Senate rejection of the League of Nations.

American foreign policy has frequently been formulated under an “America First” banner. Probably most nations operate primarily in their own self-interest most of the time. It is in the nature of nation-states naturally to do that.

World War I is Exhibit A of the major flaw of such policies. Woodrow Wilson was correct in his internationalism, but highly incorrect in relying on his moralism to carry it out. But then, it has always been difficult for any American statesman or politician to espouse internationalism in a nation which was founded on super-nationalistic tendencies. Nobody came to the American colonies or to the United States of America after it became an independent nation in order to promote an “international nation.” They came to promote their own personal interests in a new nation of unimaginable personal potential.

Nationalism is the bane of the modern world. World War I was the epitome of nationalistic tendencies gone absolutely amuck. With some major exceptions, World War II was a replay of World War I, although on a far larger scale. The Korean War was the only truly international war of either history or modernity, except that it was an international effort essentially orchestrated by one nation, the U.S.A.

As we come to the centennial of the end of The War to End All Wars, we should try to learn some lessons from its failures, which were innumerable, and from its successes, which were non-existent.

William Tecumseh Sherman was correct. War is hell.      


John Miller is Pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC.
More of his writings may be viewed at www.chapelwithoutwalls.org.



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