The Great War

by Ray Grigg

In Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 — a century ago — Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, shot Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand as a protest of the 40-year Austro-Hungarian occupation of his country. After 400 years of previous Turkish Ottoman occupation, the Serbs wanted their independence. But the Austro-Hungarian empire had other plans. On July 28, 1914, its artillery shells were fired across the Danube and Sava Rivers, and an empire of 52 million declared war on a little nation of 5 million. The first recorded casualty of this conflict was Dusan Donovic, a 16-year-old Serbian Army volunteer.

The complicated and convoluted military alliances in Europe at the time prompted Germany to declare war on Russia on August 1st, then on France two days later. On August 4th, Germany invaded Belgium, so Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany the same day, bringing Canada, Australia and New Zealand into the war with Germany. On August 6th, Austria declared war on Russia and Serbia declared war on Germany. In retaliation, on August 12th, Britain and France declared war on Austria. Within 16 days, all the carefully constructed checks and balances in European power had collapsed. Few important people seemed to anticipate the magnitude of the unfolding circumstances. Several key leaders and generals were away yachting, visiting, holidaying or “taking a cure” at a foreign spa. In Britain and throughout the Commonwealth, proud and patriotic young men cheerfully lined up en masse at recruiting stations, welcoming the opportunity for a brave and adventurous tussle with a feckless enemy. Everyone expected the fighting to be over by Christmas.

Four years later, in Belgium, at 10:58 a.m. on November 11th, 1918 — exactly 2 minutes before the ceasefire Armistice — the last recorded casualty of the Great War was George Lawrence Price, a Canadian who was shot by a German sniper. During the intervening years, a small and local dispute had exploded into an international bloodbath that killed an estimated 10 million soldiers, 2.4 million innocent civilians, and an additional 4.5 million victims who died from malnutrition and disease. The 17 million deaths of the Great War were unnecessary, the potent and fatal mix of inflated pride and honour combined with generous portions of naivety, stubbornness, miscalculation, ineptitude, blind loyalty and outright stupidity. Some historians have deemed it humanity’s first collective blunder into pointless carnage.

Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian war historian, has explored the causes and consequences of the First World War in Canada in the Great Power Game: 1914-2014. His comments are neither kind nor subtle. The wholesale death of such massive numbers of people — including nearly 61,000 Canadian soldiers — needed to be excused with some kind of rationale. To justify so many deaths, Dyer explains, “all the great powers ended up saying [the war] was about far higher ideals, things that you can conceivably kill that many people for” (CBC, The Current, Aug. 14/14). This myth of higher purpose then became the justification for later wars — wars that Canada entered, even though it was never directly threatened by any of these conflicts, as Dyer notes. The ultimate legacy of the Great War, according to Dyer, was to construct the rationale that military conflict can be something other than a power struggle between national interests, and to respect the memory of those soldiers who gave their lives. “After the First World War,” Dyer said, “we were compelled to go on doing the same thing, otherwise we would be betraying the dead” (Ibid.).

The Great War was a disaster at many other levels, too. Aside from the inconceivable death and suffering it caused, it accomplished nothing except to remind us of our propensity for collective folly. So, a century after it began, the many reviews of its lessons are timely.

One of these reviews is in a Maclean’s magazine feature article called “Could We Do It Again?” (Aug. 11/14). “In 1914,” writes Peter Shawn Taylor, “Canada answered a call to duty with sacrifice that seems unfathomable today.” Indeed. Canada is a different place than a century ago. We only have to examine the agonizing reflection given to this country’s involvement in Afghanistan — 158 deaths and a fatality rate of less than 0.5% compared to the Great War’s 10% — to realize that Canada’s propensity for sacrifice is immeasurably more considered and cautious than it was in 1914.

Which invites Taylor to consider, “beyond an economic catastrophe, it’s not clear what other modern issue could rally Canadians to a common cause.” Then he offers a possibility. “Climate change is often suggested as a predicament demanding a similar call to action, yet its track record suggests an underwhelming enthusiasm for any concomitant sacrifices.” Taylor reports that “global warming is actually a good example of the public’s rejection of what it considers elite opinion,” and that “these days, no one is prepared to make a massive personal sacrifice” simply because someone tells them they should do so.

Although the world is a very different place than it was in 1914, history has a way of repeating itself in novel variations. When comparing the “Great War” with the “Great Warming”, we are barely past the killing of Archduke Ferdinand and the first firing of artillery shells across the Danube and Sava Rivers. Climatologists, biologists, archeologists and scientists from many other disciplines are issuing warnings, but the full ramifications of the unfolding circumstances are barely evident in our biosphere and our lives. We still live in an innocence that doesn’t recognize the reality of our situation. The loss of species is not yet structural; sea level rise is only a minor inconvenience; extreme weather events can still be dismissed as unusual exceptions; ocean acidification is just noticeable; adaptation is touted as an option — a rationalization with no attached comprehension of what it actually means.

Just like Sarajevo in 1914, we are slowly but inexorably slipping sideways into circumstances that are beyond our imaginative grasp. The unfolding events will be surprising, complicated and daunting. This, too, is not going to be over by Christmas.