Great War remembered but lessons oft forgotten

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By John J. Metzler

MONTREAL — World leaders met in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the Great War in 1918. The solemn gathering convened by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, saw 80 heads of state among them President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined together for the remembrances.

History tells us that at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month November, the guns finally fell silent after four years of conflict and carnage which saw the death of 18 million people.

Remembrance Day in Montreal. / Peter McCabe / Montreal Gazette
Remembrance Day in Montreal. / Peter McCabe / Montreal Gazette

Here in Montreal under cold and leaden skies, Remembrance Day ceremonies offered a poignant reminder of the sacrifice and loss of Canadians in what is also known as World War I.

The conflict which began in 1914, after the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serb terrorist, triggered a spiral of events and miscalculations where the Central powers of Austria/Hungary, Germany, and Turkey faced off in a titanic and sanguinary struggle against the Allies, the British Empire, Belgium, France, Russia, Serbia and the United States.

The book The Sleepwalkers underscores the thesis that the War was not inevitable. As the author Chris Clark wrote, “These rulers, who prided themselves on their modernity and rationalism, stumbled through crisis after crisis and finally convinced themselves that war was the only answer.”

And it would be over quickly too…or so they misjudged. Conrad Black writes in Toronto’s National Post, “It was amateur leaders, not evil men, who plunged the world into a terrible war.”

America entered WWI in 1917 already three years into the conflict. In a matter of months U.S. troops were landing in St. Nazaire France to later head to the Front. General Pershing’s
clarion call “Lafayette we are Here” resounded across France and in a relatively short 18 months The American Expeditionary Force fielded nearly two million troops to serve in France. Losses were substantial with 126,000 killed.

Canada on the other hand joined the war effort from the start. As part of the British Empire, Canada, with a much smaller population than the USA, would deploy over 600,000 soldiers to serve in the Great War; 60,000 would die. Even today, In Flanders Fields the poignant poem written by Canadian John McCrea, stands as a silent but somber testament to the Killing fields of the First World War. “In Flanders Fields where the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row,” the poem begins.

Here at St. Patrick’s Basilica one sees the sobering long list of the fallen; Capt. Fred Shaughnessy, Lt. Basil Watson, Sgt. Michael Beaudette, Grenadier William O’Neill and Pvt. Frank Fitzgerald among scores of others.

Places like the Marne, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Chateau Thierry, and Verdun would become the bloody signposts which pointed to the carnage which destroyed a generation.

In every town and villages across France the somber monuments proclaim: To our Fallen. The cemeteries filled with their graves Died for France Mort pour la France, echo over and over again like the chorus of a Greek Tragedy the terrible cost of the Great War.

After the Armistice and Allied Victory, Empires on both sides collapsed from the cost and carnage of battle. Austria/Hungary, Germany, Russia and Turkey. An age of self-determination with new or reborn states emerged; Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland. But twenty years later these countries would tragically provide the political tinder for the next conflict.

Austria/Hungary was dismembered. Germany defeated, embittered and wracked by hyper- inflation would later turn to a National Socialist dictator. Czarist Russia bled white by war would collapse to the communists and then fall into civil war. Ottoman Turkey would shatter and with it allow for a new chaotic map of its former Middle East possessions.

Few Americans alive today have any connection to WWI. What was known as Armistice Day in the USA became the wider and inclusive Veterans Day during the Eisenhower Administration. In Britain and Canada poppies are worn by young and old alike in the days leading up to Remembrance Day.

Our family holds a poignant connection in a sense to the Great War. Adjoining a family grave in New York rests one of the fallen; Sgt. William Francis of the 165 Infantry, from the storied “Fighting 69th” who was killed in the Summer offensive in July 1918.

As John McCrea wrote, “If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep, though the poppies grow in Flanders fields.” Remember the Fallen.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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