‘14-18’: “the War to end all Wars”
This specific ‘never again’ phrase, was
the last word and probably a spurious justification of WWI. But could it have
been intended as a solemn undertaking by the nations’ governors, or just the
best that could be suggested to bring about individual/family/national closure?
The facts show that industrialised warfare on this early 20th century scale,
because of the price in blood to be paid was simply unwinnable- a case of
everybody loses.So was WWI “the war to end all wars”?
It was a war which required citizens of all nations to be wrenched from their
families and normal lives, brutalised as recruits and quickly fashioned into
warriors to be sent to the frontline to live in trenches. There they were led by
generals of questionable ability, many completely out of their
depth whose experience was from the 19th C, on whom elected politicians entirely
depended for advice on the important decisions of conducting a war.
Yet the days of successful massed infantry and cavalry charges, in the face of
machine guns and rapid-firing accurate artillery, had gone for ever. That should
have been a no-brainer, obvious from the lessons of the American Civil war half
a century before, which military observers from all European nations had
witnessed, plus the first hand experience of the short but decisive
Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
And what was the ‘14/’18 war all about? A series of treaties, trip wires to
restrain any aggressive single or collection of powers, becoming over-powerful,
compared to their neighbours. This was the theory and the old European formula,
whose powers were constantly fighting between themselves, and were at
the hub of global activity.
Unlike any previous war in human experience the rulers of the countries
involved, knew or should have known, that they had failed their citizens by
sleepwalking (as they were later accurately accused) into this man-made and
completely avoidable hell.
The horror included mass mobilisation in all the participating nations so it
was no longer a matter of small professional armies. Now nearly every family of
each of the warring nations had members drafted into uniform, at risk of life
and limb, with a high probability of not surviving.
For all of the war it was a
static face-off between millions on its main European front, from Switzerland to
Belgium. From the beginning until virtually the end, only a inconsequential amount of territory changed hands as the stark reality of modern war
became manifest: that soft human tissue could not prevail against almost
unbelievable blizzards of steel bullets and shell fragments from accurate
rapid-firing artillery and machine guns.
This was also the only war to date where the filthy weapon of poison gas was
used by both sides, not just killing, but condemning many survivors to the
protracted misery of breathing through ruined lungs, for the rest of their
What was more significant for future wars was the advent
of a new innovative weapon of war, military aircraft, which developed from its
early years of simple ‘string and canvas’ airframes, suitable for artillery
spotting and individual gladiatorial confrontations, of little military
significance other than prestige. Yet air power would come to have not only a
tactical impact but a strategic, perhaps even the key determining role, in
Never a chance - but it was the worst of wars by several criteria, not least the
final butchers bill. Things did change, as we shall show and not necessarily for
the better. A century later in this context, we take stock of what has happened
from the beginning of the peace, right up until the present time.
Even as the Armistice in Europe was taking effect in November 1918, a fearful civil war
was underway across Russia, which after its 1917 revolution, signed a separate
peace in March 1918. By 1924 the old Tsarist order had long gone and
the world’s first Communist government was firmly in power in Moscow. Having
engaged in a little reported series of brutal regional wars in the Caucasus and
Central Asian colonies, they had consolidated these areas of the old Tsarist imperial Russia. Many of these had
vainly hoped for independence. It was not to be! The Red Army fought and
eventually succeeded in controlling all of them and installing in each a
communist hierarchy, subsidiary to Moscow. The Union of ‘Soviet Socialist
Republics’ became a reality, at its peak composed of 14 subsidiary SSR’s, under
the central control of the 15th, the vast territory of federated Russia.
Political and economic power always remained in Moscow, which from this time
also embarked on a massive militarisation program with a view to expansion.
After the agonies of the Great War of ‘14/’18, Europe generally was to be spared
from more of the same for just a few more years, but in Asia, having supported
the Allies of WWI on the winning side, Japan had become a rising power with an
old fashioned mandate to create a new imperium. That had started even before WW1
with the conquest of Korea and brief and successful wars with both imperial
China and Tsarist Russia. The Korean peninsula became occupied and colonised by
Japan, before this militaristic nation in the 1930’s, plunged into a massive
war with a decrepit China, leaving Japan out on its own, by far the most
powerful nation in Asia. Through a series of campaigns, with a militarist
government in Tokyo, they conquered Manchuria and north east
China including Beijing, also Shanghai and Nanking in the vast territory of
China. A large part of this ancient nation remained under Japan’s brutal
military occupation until the end of WWII in 1945, when Japan surrendered to the
US. The Sino-Japanese war was marked by frightful atrocities against civilian
populations, often repeated around the country, exemplified by the Japanese
conquest of the important city of Nanking, of which the modern world had seldom
witnessed such horrors.
China, during the period of the Japanese invasion of their country was
simultaneously experiencing the armed revolution of the new Chinese Communist
party, led by Mao Tse Tung, which as year followed year, became ever more
significant in China. The Chinese government were led, not very successfully, by
a military dictator, Chiang Kai Chek who was not conclusively effective against
either foreign or domestic military incursions. He was however able to establish
an alliance with the distant USA, but not with neighbouring Russia, who
naturally supported the Chinese Communist armies.
Meanwhile in Europe, the theatre of most of WWI, there was an uneasy peace for
approximately 20 years in which the German nation recovered from its defeat, a
period that saw the dictator Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi)
Party, come to power, dominate the neighbouring states, and become entrenched.
He set about re-arming Germany in such a way that the post-war economy was
restored by an ambitious programme of building large and modern armed forces. He
also solved Germanys’ mass unemployment situation by vastly increasing the
manpower of the armed forces.
It was clear, or should have been, to governments everywhere that Germany now
had the capability and would in its own time, be resuming it’s ‘unfinished
business’ from the ‘14-‘18 war.
Following WW1 three European empires had collapsed, including Imperial Germany,
Austro-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey.
After the old Austrian empire collapsed, its core successor republic was soon to
be absorbed by Nazi Germany. Several former Austrian colonies within Europe,
seized the opportunity of achieving their independence.
In the Balkans there were small local wars, as Serbia sought dominance of the
others under a new weak monarchy, including Slovenia and Croatia. In WWII the
restive Balkans once again experienced war, from Italian and German invasions.
Immediately following the conclusion of WWI, in which the Ottoman empire was
amongst the bigtime losers, there was an invasion of Turkey by Greek forces -
who had been on the winning side. The story of the struggle between Greece and
Turkey had unfolded over several centuries and with Turkey down, the Greeks were
intent on paying off some old scores. However, the Turks rallied under one of
their successful WWI generals, Kemal Ataturk, who defeated the Greeks and took
control of his own nation, bringing to an end the many centuries of rule by the
Ottoman Sultans who were also Caliphs, the highest spiritual authority of the
Sunni Islamic religion (not dissimilar in its essentials from the Popes of Rome
in the Catholic faith). Both the offices of Sultan and Caliph were abolished by
Ataturk in founding the modern state of Turkey, seeking to establish a secular
European democracy there.
The Ottoman empire in breaking up, found that the subsequent peace treaty
decided that Syria and Lebanon were to be placed under French stewardship. Iraq
was awarded to the British, who tried to run it from India. Iraq was not at
that time a nation, but three Ottoman provinces, which the British consolidated
into a kingdom. This has led consequently to endless strife between Sunni, Shia,
and Kurd and the area, seldom out of world news, remains the cockpit of middle-eastern violence.
In Iraq in 1921 the British imposed a monarch, King Feisal, of the Hashemite clan that
had supported the British in the Arabian peninsula desert war, against Turkey.
They had been displaced from their stewardship of the Holy cities of Mecca and
Medina, by their ancient rivals the al Saud, who now dominated the peninsula.
Feisal’s brother Abdullah became the King of Transjordan, his family still rules
The Iraqis having seen the end of one colonial power would not sit still for
another imperial master. After a fruitless heavily criticised military
engagement, the British eventually pulled out. Next door Syria was equally
hostile to French rule, with an uprising there happening simultaneously with
that in Iraq, not unlike the present time.
In Europe in 1917, a million- strong Red Army created by the Communist
revolution in Russia invaded Poland, en route to Berlin, to support a nascent
communist revolution in the post-war chaos of a defeated Germany. This vast
Soviet army was beaten back by the brilliantly-led, much smaller Polish army, in
one of the least well known, short but highly significant wars of history,
thereby halting Moscow’s early effort to control Germany, with its further
objective of creating a communist Europe in the 1920’s!
So during the ’interwar’ years, other wars great and small continued to rage in
different parts of the planet, as these fundamental adjustments took place. In
the 1930’s two other venerable European nations: Italy and Spain, found
themselves under the rule of a dictator, like Germany’s Adolf Hitler. In Spain
it was a rebel general Francesco Franco, who led much of the nation’s army
in revolt against its elected social democratic government. He succeeded in creating a
fascist state, after the bitter and protracted fighting of a civil war. Italy’s
dictator was elected in a chaotic civil situation, by various crooked political
means. A fascist former journalist and brilliant orator, Benito Mussolini became
the absolute ruler. His warlike program was to seek to emulate the great days of
Rome by recreating a cult of militarism, an apparently capable army and an
empire, first by taking control of Libya in North Africa and seeking
(unsuccessfully) to subjugate Ethiopia in the East African highlands.
It became clear after the collapse of democracy and the advent of fascism in
these three important European nations: Germany, Italy and Spain- most of the
rest of the significant European nations were more or less democratic- taken
together with the widespread imperial conquests in Asia by Japan, that the
democratic nations of the world had reluctantly to face what was now becoming
inevitable (for those who would see), a monumental clash between these new
dictatorships and the established democracies.
The position of Russia was highly ambitious – communism was a supranational
creed, not clear to everyone then, but understood to be expansionist. They were
much occupied with the massive scope of their revolution in the vast territories
of the former imperial Russia. The timing of their eventual breakout beyond
their frontiers was determined by Hitler’s ambitions to defeat and subjugate
them, attempted over the corpse of Poland destroyed in 1939 (‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’,
was the doctrine that turned totalitarian Russia into a mighty ally of the
democracies during WWII).
Nevertheless the Russians did find time to invade their small next door
neighbour in Finland: “100 divisions against 3”, as it was described at the
time. The Soviets found victory very costly and embarrassingly slow, with
eventually over a million men thrown into the struggle - which the German
not fail to notice.
All of this was inevitably leading to widespread war. Although WWI had produced
a generation that thereafter generally abhorred war, even less could they
countenance the idea of being under the heel of a military dictatorship and
occupied by foreign troops. Inevitably war-like preparation in the democracies
resumed late. Yet if not too late, it was ‘only just’ when it came to rearmament
and raising of troops on the necessary massive scale.
Meanwhile, the Americas - North, Central and South were at peace.
The sleeping giant of the United States was at every level remote from the
growing threat of war. With Canada their friend; 3000 miles of ocean
safeguarding them on both their Atlantic and Pacific coasts; with no fears of
the South and Central American states to their south, public opinion in the US
was mainly concerned in avoiding being ‘sucked in’ to another European war,
following their late but decisive entry into WWI. Air power was still emerging
from its nursery stages, following the pioneering days of WW1. The threat of
‘long range’ bombers, by now real enough in Europe, was then a physically
impossibility for any enemy of the US to project, given the immense distances
between Japan and the US’s Pacific coast, or of any potential European
antagonist from across the Atlantic. Moreover the threat of naval invasion
hardly seemed to have occurred to the US government. When it did come, via the
carrier-borne naval air attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour, such illusions were
It followed the advent of a new kind of capital ship, the aircraft carrier which
together with a massive increase in submarines and the new naval aircraft,
rendered irrelevant to modern warfare the formerly decisive floating gun
platforms - battleships and heavy cruisers, following the experience of this
early point in WWII.
In Europe in the late 1930’s, with two rival authoritarian powers it placed the
remaining European neutrals facing the terrible threat of a new war.
Czechoslovakia was an early victim with the British and the French accepting, no
doubt with regret, Hitler’s demands to have ‘restored’ to Germany the
Sudetenland, the Czech province that neighboured Germany, which was broadly
German-speaking. Neither the British nor the French, the only possible opponents
to the rearmed Germany, were ready for war. Public opinion was anyway sick of
war, after the terrible losses they had suffered in the1914-18 war.
Geopolitically it became clear, that both fascist Germany and communist Russia
were both seeking expansion and territorial domination. Such a clash was fast
becoming inevitable as was the realisation that Europe would in the first
instance, be the battlefield when these titans finally squared off.
Japan in its imperial mode had a large and modern army based permanently in
Manchuria, from which in the late 1930’s they had planned a strategy, if
circumstances favoured it, to expand through unpopulated Siberia, westwards
towards European Russia. In 1939 one of the most important battles of the 20th
century, which few, even now, have ever heard of, took place in Mongolia on the
Chinese frontier, at a remote place called Kalkhin Gol.