This past Sunday morning in France — at precisely 11 a.m. — the world marked exactly 100 years since the guns fell silent to end World War I.
The final orders to subordinate leaders from Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French general who served as Supreme Allied Commander, are remarkably brief and understated to the moment. "Hostilities will cease on the entire front beginning at 11 a. m. (France time), November 11," he directed. "The Allied troops will not pass the line reached at that date and at that hour without a new order."
"That hour" brought the merciful conclusion to the most hideous and murderous clash of armies ever witnessed in more than five millennia of recorded human history.
Time's passage has diminished our knowledge and appreciation of the sacrifice made by Allied combatants to end the first threat presented by Germany and its backers. The carnage was almost beyond comprehension, particularly to a generation of Americans dismayed by the deaths of almost 7,000 troops in 17 years of warfare in the Middle East.
Encyclopedia Britannica notes that 8.5 million soldiers on both sides were killed, either by combat or disease, and another 21.2 million were wounded. Casualties came in humongous droves. A half-million died in the eight-month battle for Gallipoli in 1915. Another 510,000 were killed in 1916 in the 11-month battle for Verdun. Fully, 1 million died during the 20-week fight over the plains around the Somme River. "Somme," once wrote Friedrich Steinbrecher, a German army officer, "The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word."
World War I introduced mechanized war, with previously unknown capabilities to kill. Troops fought on land and sea, as they had throughout history, but also in the sky and beneath the surface of the waves. World War I introduced trench warfare, poison gas, submarines, dogfights, tanks, flamethrowers, the modern machine gun — all so lethal that when the shooting stopped at that 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the population of the dead equaled the population of Canada. Among them, 116,516 U.S. troops, killed in just 19 months.
The ignition point for such slaughter seems almost inconsequential relative to its outcome. The late literary critic Paul Fussell noted in his book "The Great War and Modern Memory," "Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. ... In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot."
That seminal, seemingly isolated act in far-off Sarajevo eventually ensnared most of the industrialized world in a fight for survival. As the BBC pointed out, "None of the states that went to war realised how long it would last or how terrible the cost might be. Most thought it would be over in a few short months and that peace would return in 1915. Once the war had begun, the initial reasons for being involved seemed to become less important. The great powers battled it out to see who would be left standing at the end."
In August 1914, two months after the archduke's slaying, the British science fiction writer H.G. Wells wrote, "This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war — it is the last war!" When hostilities ended four years later, President Woodrow Wilson, in announcing the news to Congress, said, "It is not now possible to assess the consequences of this great consummation. We know only that this tragical war, whose consuming flames swept from one nation to another until all the world was on fire, is at an end and that it was the privilege of our own people to enter it at its most critical juncture in such fashion and in such force as to contribute, in a way of which we are all deeply proud, to the great result ... Armed imperialism such as the men conceived who were but yesterday the masters of Germany is at an end, its illicit ambitions engulfed in black disaster. Who will now seek to revive it?"
We know, of course, that Wells and Wilson, though hopeful, were both wrong; such ambitious imperialism was resurrected just a generation later, with similar catastrophic consequences.
In the century since the end of Wilson's quest to make the world "safe for democracy," roughly another 500,000 Americans have died to defend our way of life, and to ensure that people captive to or threatened by tyranny elsewhere have the same opportunity for self-determination and freedom that we enjoy. Reflect on and give thanks for their sacrifice and that of millions more who have protected our country — and hope we never see the likes of the Great War again.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD