Today – the eleventh day of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – marks the centuries of violence that…
Today – the eleventh day of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – marks the centuries of violence that ended the First World War. Your humble correspondent traveled to Kansas City, Missouri last week to offer comments as part of the “1918: Conflict Screw”, the Hundred Years Symposium at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. After two days of listening to learned commentators, if different dimensions of the war, the armistry and the interregnum of the world war continue, it is clear that the great war is still throwing a long cultural shadow.
Bottom line: History questions. A partial or distorted understanding of history means that any guidance we distill from it is partial or distorted as well.
Incorrect guidance is a real outlook. Ask the man on the street what the war was about, and probably he will respond to something about tombs. Soldiers huddled in muddy, unfortunate excavations under constant artillery bombardment represent the dominant image of the First World War. And that’s a big part of the story for sure. But why is our cultural mining session over the subversive war in France? The obvious reason for the Americans is that it was where American doughboys fought 1
917-1918. It was our war.
We tended to emphasize the combined bombing against Nazi Germany, landings in North Africa, Italy and Normandy and other US spheres of warfare during World War II, while shaking the terrible and probably crucial battle between German and Soviet armies. In the same river it is natural to remember what our soldiers, sailors and pilots did during the Great War. These were sons and daughters in America.
It is also meaningful to concentrate on France because the West is where the arms of August rang out in 1914 and where the Great War ended in November 1918. The German army’s Schlieffen Plan sent the legions care through Belgium to France before the offensive stagnated under stiffer than expected French and British resistance. The static fighting that takes place in World War I followed. In the spring of 1918, the German army launched a series of titanic offensive hopes to break a French army that verge on mutiny or drive the British Expeditionary Force into the ocean before the United States could intervene. And France is where the Allies finally gather enough fighting power to puncture German lines at several points at the same time – let them break through and force Berlin to agree to the scene of violence as we remember today. The beginning and the end imprint on the popular mind.
And then it’s the culture dimension. France witnessed heroes who helped to fake the American Army and Marine Corps to what they are today. Legendary figures such as General John J. Pershing made their name on the western front. Legendary figures from subsequent American history-Harry S. Truman, George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur-made their debut as junior officers. In the battle of Belleau Wood in May-June 1918, American soldiers and navalists struck a German spearhead against Paris – and helped prepare the ground for the Allied counteroffensive and victory. “Retreat, hell! We just came here,” exclaimed an unclean navy when asked to retreat before German attacks. Do not try to pump your fist on that bravados show.
Think ahead of all the amazing cultural articles that came out of the Great War. Poetry from British soldiers Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen are among the finest warlords, the finest poetry, ever written. There is an elegant quality to Brooke and Owens life stories: both fell in military service, Brooke against the beginning of the war and Owen near the end. In a way, their stories make literary reservations for the war in France. In 1915, the Canadian police’s Colonel John McCrae “In Flanders Fields” merged a poem that remains a staple for Veterans Day observations for centuries after presiding over a fallen comrade’s funeral. Erich Maria Remarque is all quiet on the west front, a statement from a German perspective to the horrors seen in France. Such relics convey drama and drama make lasting popular memories.
Powerful testament to dig to fight unclear accounts for other theaters. Even modern pop culture – think of the early seasons of the Downton Abbey – reinforces the western advantage of our world-class memories. Not even the eloquence of Ernest Hemingway, whose farewell to weapons is set in Italy rather than France, can completely counteract the bias. There is some melancholy about throwing men against fire-fending soldiers at the top of the killing machine gun and artillery fire and barbed wire – which continues to assess.
Without taking anything away from the monumental literature, the visual arts and the music that celebrate the fighter in France, it is important to remember that anchored battle in the west is far from the whole story of the Great War. The movement war that German commander hoped to behave in France actually happened to the east, for example. Why? Because the pure physical scale of western Russia made impractical defense difficult. In the West, the Allied and Central Power can dig in because France is a relatively compact country stuck by the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pyrenees. It was a closed system as opposed to the open system, which is Russia. If the armies tried a perimeter defense in the East, their lines would have been so long that no army could trap enough troops or weapons to protect them.
Germany’s defeat of the Russian army in combination with the revolution in Russia urged the country to enter a ceasefire and leave the war via the Brest-Lithuania Treaty. Its departure freed German commanders to transfer troops to the west and mounted the spring 1918 offensive with heavy numerical superiority over demoralized French and British armies. (US forces in Europe continued to train until that summer.) The Allies tried to open a southern maritime road in Gallipoli in 1915 with catastrophic results. The great war saw bitter mountain wars between Italy and Austria-Hungary. British and French forces were campaigned in the Middle East, where the open, flat terrain sometimes allowed cavalry charges to succeed. The Desert Theater made Englishman T. E. Lawrence “Lawrence of Arabia” – and invited Lawrence to write one of the major agreements on irregular warfare. Japan shot up German colonies in the Pacific and China, which helped the Pacific scene of the theater during World War II.
And over and over again. Do these non-western theaters go today? Yes. Contemporary endeavors lie downstream culture, and the great war has become part of the cultural memory of all the former fighting states. How they understand their past forms of how they themselves do. For example, ask an Australian about the Great War; You’re more likely to find stories of “ANZAC” -Australia / New Zealand-expeditionary power at Gallipoli than stories about excavations that span France. This is Australia’s basic legend. A Russian or Italian would take a different view from an American, British or Frenchman.
Assume that lessons from a conflict are buried on the generation who fought for it, on the children of war singers and, to a lesser extent, on their grandchildren. Then they pass into common memory and help to include a set of axioms about the world and how society will help to deal with it. Historical lessons shield some political and strategic alternatives in future controversies, while creating a society and leadership toward others. Sure, it took time to compile such a comprehensive understanding of difficult events as possible – to help us learn careful lessons from these events.
Wrong lessons in history can dampen bad decisions in this and now, while wise lessons increase our chances of excellence. History is not only of antiquarian interest on this centenary. It is important to implement foreign policy and strategy well.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at Naval War College and Co-author of Red Star over the Pacific Ocean (Second Edition next month). The views expressed here are his only ones.