There was little actual point in fighting World War 1. As in most wars, the only people who actually suffered were normal people, and not the governments who decided to join the war in the first place. There is rarely any justifiable cause in fighting war, but World War 1 especially was simply caused by too many alliances, and every country’s desire to demonstrate the strength of their military. The outdated tactics of war, paired with new technology, created immense loss of life. All of the soldiers fighting in the war had families at home, families who would feel their loss; there is no excuse that could justify this war. When considering this war, the BBC article, “World War One in numbers,” is able to provide the most information of the incomprehensible loss of life that the war caused: 65 million soldiers fought in the war, of which 8.5 million were killed, and 21 million killed. In addition to this, another 13 million civilians were killed. Although it did have far reaching impacts on the political and economic landscape of Europe, the true significance of the war can be measured by lives that were permanently affected by the war. It cannot be said enough times that there is no reason that could have made all of this suffering, especially of civilians and the inexperienced soldiers drafted to fight in the war, worth it.
So many of the figures we see as instrumental in beginning the war were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time: Gavrilo Princip was only 19 when he killed the Archduke, and only 23 when he died in prison. He was simply one conspirator who got lucky, swept up in matters larger than him. In addition, the soldiers in the movie “The Trench: Last Days before the Battle of the Somme,” demonstrate the same naivete and blind courage. They were all in their late teens when they enlisted, and relied on the leadership of their experienced commander to survive the trenches. Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were to be part of the first wave of attack in the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest battles in history, with over three million combatants and more than a million casualties and injuries. The final scene in the movie depicts them going over the top, where their commander is killed within seconds; despite this, the soldiers go on, only to die one by one to the machine guns on the other side. This movie truly demonstrated to me the futility of the war: fought by boys under the command of fools.
In addition, looking at the pictures in the article, “World War I in Photos: Introduction,” I was struck by the multitude of medals and awards that the European rulers had. I assume that none of them, and none of their successors would ever be reduced to fighting as a foot soldier in the trenches, but I believe that doing so would have made them much less willing to declare war. Suffering truly can teach lessons that nothing else can; in the same article, the first image depicts the cheerful naivete of girls handing flowers to soldiers, in comparison to the fourteenth picture, of Austro-Hungarian troops executing Serbian civilians. It truly reminds me of a quote by Dalton Trumbo, “World War I began like a summer festival—all billowing skirts and golden epaulets. Millions upon millions cheered from the sidewalks while plumed imperial highnesses, serenities, field marshals and other such fools paraded through the capital cities of Europe at the head of their shining legions.”
The most significant lesson that I believe can be learned from this war is that we should take all possible steps to prevent war in the future. War is terrible and not at all magnificent, and the death that is so indelibly attached to war is even more inexcusable. I won’t say that there is no reason that would ever justify war, but in general, war is started by arrogant leaders, and paid for by the common people. This is not the lesson that the world learned from World War 1 at the time. There was little foresight, and what foresight did exist came from people like Woodrow Wilson, who was disregarded by many of the European Nations. The allies were more interested in punishing Germany and Austria-Hungary than they were in preventing future war, as demonstrated by the treaty of Versailles. Their inability to think about the bigger picture resulted in World War II; this lack of foresight and interventionist beliefs resulted in even more conflicts in the years since then, most notably by the United States (and it’s inability to keep its military out of situations it had no reason to be in). The domino effect described by the Guardian in its interactive exhibit was truly the difference between this being a continent-wide war and a world war; this tangle of countries who all feel obligated to join the war was the cause of the most destruction, as many of these European powers had colonies which also sent troops, beyond what was already sent by the European countries.
The world was irrevocably changed after the First World War, due to both the advances in military technology and in the trauma sustained among both soldiers and civilians. The IWM’s article, “Firsts of the First World War,” describes the many advances that resulted from the First World War. For example, it marked the beginning of aerial warfare, air attacks on civilians, chemical warfare, tank usage, and flamethrowers. These military advances would make war even more deadly, and as such, were responsible for many of the casualties incurred over the course of the war. In addition, as the IWM’s other article, “5 Things You Need To Know About The First World War,” states, the First World War was also waged against civilians. The use of propaganda to demonise opposing forces, and atrocities committed by invading forces all contributed to the great loss of civilian lives. The 16 million lives lost were felt by survivors, and the trauma that was incurred across the world would not heal before the Second World War, just over two decades later.
Although the cost of this war was incomprehensible, it is important to learn about war, especially the World Wars. Beyond the need to learn from history, and the responsibility all of us have to make sure that it never happens again, we should remember the people who laid down their lives, willingly or not, in service of egotistical leaders. There is great danger in blindly following authority, and rebellions like the Bolshevik Revolution (no matter what the results were), demonstrate the need to think of what the consequences of our leaders’ actions will be before blindly following them. In the movie “We Shall Not Grow Old,” many of the soldiers seem proud to be fighting, speaking of how anxious they were to see action and to “kill Germans.” Though this thinking was encouraged by propaganda, their loyalty was blind, and they paid for it with their lives. I believe that being loyal includes the responsibility to speak up when necessary, and learning about history means that it is easier to support one’s argument with examples. Little can be gained through terror and bloodshed; more was lost from the war, as different alliances ruptured and the seeds of resentment were sowed, growing into World War II a short time later. Death is not, and will never be, glorious, and the most important takeaway from learning about any war, but this one especially, is that it cannot happen again.