A war to end all wars

4 Aug

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the recognised start of The Great War, the moment that Britain declared war on Germany after the Germans remained silent in reply to a British ultimatum regarding Belgium’s neutrality.  It is often said that when Britain entered the war that the politicians and population expected it to be a short war, with the soldiers leaving in August apparently calling back to those they left behind that they’d be “home by Christmas”.

As you should know, this war lasted 4 years.  Here are some numbers you may or may not know:

  • During the war an estimated 9 million combatants were killed
  • It is estimated that the total death toll including civilians was 16-17 million
  • 38 countries were involved in the war – at a time when the total number of sovereign states was 62 (different sources give different estimates due to the statuses of some countries, as low as 32 out of 59).
  • 3 empires were wiped from the map during the war or in its aftermath: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the German Empire.


A map showing the countries involved and the sides they shared. From a collection of posters by Laura Hobson

A map showing the countries involved and the sides they shared. From a collection of posters by Laura Hobson

Although not the bloodiest war in history, it was remarkable not only for the scale of the killing and casualties but also, arguably more importantly from a historical perspective, the number and variety of combatants.  For Britain of course, this was a time of empire, and the Empire was mobilised.  Many empires were mobilised.

Today, memorials and other ceremonies are being held in Britain, Europe, and elsewhere, to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died in the war and the effect it had on our societies.  I find that I cannot think about World War I without thinking about the legacy of that time for so many parts of the world.  In my mind particularly are the conflict zones where conflicts were carved or accelerated by occupying imperial powers, whose arbitrary boundaries were affected by both world wars, and furthermore, where people are still dying as a result of these historical actions.

The ongoing conflict between the Israeli administration and the Palestinian freedom fighters/terrorists can be traced back through centuries, if you so wish, but the establishment of the Mandate of Palestine, ruled by the British who had won the region from the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, is a turning point in that region’s history.  Subsequently, the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel would take place after World War II, with the British gifting the land to the displaced diaspora, and ever since then Gaza and the West Bank have been in limbo, with no recognition of sovereignty and continued conflict over Israeli occupation of more and more Palestinian land.

Last week, around one and a half thousand Palestinians and over 60 Israelis died in a resurgence of violence between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.  The majority of deaths on the Palestinian side were civilians.

When I think of World War I, the Great War, I think about the sentiments that came out at the end of the war.  The symbol of the red poppy for the fallen, and the goal of remembering them.  Not only remembering their sacrifice on a personal level, but also remembering the war that their sacrifice might not be just a historical footnote, but a reminder that our goal must be peace.  When I hear the words “Lest we forget” and “we will remember them” I want to honour their memory by doing all that we can to ensure that young men are not sent to die or be maimed in wars that centuries later will be half-remembered or seen through the lens of costume dramas.

I want to honour them by searching for the peace that they fought to defend.

That peace should be sought for by all people, everywhere, and whenever we can we should be enabling peace, not conflict.

Not selling weapons to brutal regimes.  Not invading sovereign nations on false pretences.  Not using our influence to maximise profits whilst the local populations suffer.

So whilst leaders across the world, including our own British government elites, pay lip service to the dead of the Great War, to the killed and wounded and the families they left behind, I want them to know that we are watching, and willing them to truly honour the sacrifice in both world wars, and every conflict since, by doing their utmost to ensure that wars and armed conflict are avoided, especially when increasingly in modern conflicts it is swathes of civilians who die with indignity and anonymity, with no memorials or poetry.

Interestingly, this week marks another anniversary that should never be forgotten: the 69th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA.  The combined death toll of these attacks is estimated at over quarter of a million people (including those who died of radiation effects afterwards) for two days of action, so 125,000 for each day .  Compare that with 17 million over four years – an average then of 12,000 a day, and you can see how human effectiveness at taking lives increased in just the 30 years after the “war to end war”.

I leave you with that great warning to all modern people “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Let us learn from the past, let us remember.


Lest we forget.


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