‘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.

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 lives.

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 future conflicts.

So was WWI “the war to end all wars”?

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 there.

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 generals did 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 utterly shattered.

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.