Montana Voices: The (first) war to end all wars

As sabers rattle over the Korean Peninsula, remember that those who create wars seldom fight in them, that is left to the sons and daughters of less important people. In World War I, the decisions to enter the war were made by men who believed it would be close to Armageddon.

Jim Elliott

“If war breaks out,” said British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, “it will be the worst catastrophe the world has ever seen.” Even so, seven nations declared war on one another.

The arms race then was a contest between Great Britain and The German Empire to outdo each other in building massive ships with devastating firepower. Larger than battleships, they were called “Dreadnaughts” — fear nothings — by Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher who, with Churchill, directed the buildup of the Royal Navy. The great irony was that the Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy played a secondary, although important, role in the war. It was the ground troops who bore the brunt of battle.

Loss of life was phenomenal. In five years of fighting, 18 million lives were lost, and seven million of those were women, children and the elderly who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. What we call today “collateral damage.” The number of civilian deaths is made even more astounding because this was warfare largely without airplanes, bombs or guided missiles.

For years, the Western Front in France was at a stalemate. Opposing troops fought and lived in trenches sometimes just yards apart and filled with mud, feces, and rotting corpses. Men were ordered to advance by charging into machine guns firing at point blank range. In one day, a British battalion of 1,100 men suffered over 900 casualties. In 1917, over half of the French regiments refused orders to advance (and amazingly, the Germans never found out about it). It was not war, it was slaughter. And it was avoidable.

In 1914 the heir to the throne of the dual kingdoms of Austria and Hungary was assassinated by a Bosnian national in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Although the Serbs had no part in the assassination the Austro-Hungarians had been waiting for a chance to eliminate the only independent Slavic nation, and imposed sanctions on the Serbs that were seemingly impossible to meet. Amazingly, the Serbs met all but one, but that was enough of an excuse for Austria to attack Serbia. Germany was in a bind — they were committed by treaty to defend Austria if Austria were attacked (and the assassination was deemed attack enough), but Germany was fearful of getting Russia and Great Britain involved.

While Kaiser Wilhelm II was enjoying his annual vacation of cruising Scandinavian waters on his yacht, frenzied efforts were being made to avoid war, or if not avoid it to have it on their own terms. But once the Austro-Hungarian Empire attacked tiny Serbia, Germany was treaty bound to support them. Germany’s big fear was that Britain would enter the war against them, which was likely if Germany attacked France, which it had every intention of doing, and the Germans hoped to hold Russia, which had a mutual support treaty with France, to the theater of operations in the Balkans against Austro-Hungary. But Russia declared war on Germany as well, and England soon followed suit. In 1917, the United States joined the fray.

On the evening that war was declared against Germany, British Foreign Secretary Grey stood, with a friend, gazing out a window at the somber and solemn dusk as the gas street lamps were being lit in a park across the way. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he said. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Several years after the war, Erich Maria Remarque wrote his classic war book, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” In it, a German soldier thinks, “War should be a kind of popular festival with entrance tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena, the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out on themselves. Whoever survives, the country wins. That would be much simpler and more [just] than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting.”

We can only dream.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.