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The war that didn't end all wars

Aug 4, 2014 - By Randy Tucker

A hundred years ago on the battlefields of northern Europe, the youth of a continent died in unexpected droves in the meat grinder that marked the rise of impersonal war.

In a few days a milestone in the history of humanity takes place.

The centennial of the Great War, The War to End all Wars, or, most commonly, World War I takes place.

Sadly, the moniker "The War to End all Wars" proved to be just a springboard to an even more catastrophic event a generation later and heralded hundreds of smaller, yet still deadly conflicts.

The world of 1914 was a meeting of the Victorian Age with its emphasis on honor, character and personal virtue with the murderous, anonymous world of industrial combat.

On the battlefields of northern Europe the flower of the youth of the continent died in unexpected droves in the midst of the meat grinder that marked the rise of impersonal war. This was the generation that invented penicillin, television, rockets and computers. What other innovations died on the barbed wire at Flanders so long ago?

European generals reveled in the flowing colors and pageantry of a carefully orchestrated cavalry charge to the demise of the men they so ineptly commanded.

Some of these mental giants even made public statements claiming that the machine gun had little effect on horse and rider in full charge. These flamboyant dreams were quickly erased at Ypres, the Somme, Verdun and hundreds of smaller battlefields as machine guns mowed down thousands of young men as if they were harvesting wheat.

The political leaders were even more behind the times than the old military codgers who calmly killed tens of thousands of young men in the space of a few minutes with their flawed, antiquated strategies.

The war marked the end of the old powers in Europe. Kings, princes and czars fell quickly to more democratic governments in some regions, and, horribly, to totalitarian ones in Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan and the newly emerging Soviet Union.

Even people who would later be regarded as some of the best leaders the world has ever produced failed miserably in the horror of tactics failing to match technology.

Winston Churchill's illustrious career nearly ended on the narrow beaches below the heights of Gallipoli. The Turks held the high ground, and the future prime minister and his military advisors suffered from tight tunnel vision in how to attack their fortified positions. In the space of a few weeks, repeated frontal assaults with colonial soldiers primarily from Australia and New Zealand, ended in a lopsided massacre of the attacking troops. Churchill was recalled in disgrace, and his career nearly ended with the lost lives and destroyed confidence of two of the commonwealth's most loyal members.

Parallels are easy to draw a century later. Prior to 1914 the "Great Powers" as the nations of Europe often referred to themselves, were in a constant state of military escalation. Soldiers were praised; the military was the most important aspect of British, Austrian, German, French, Belgian, Russian and the smaller nations of the continent. In the midst of this escalation, fear of neighboring nations became paranoia. Germany tied itself to Austria, which made a mutual protection pact with Serbia. The French and Russians formed an alliance, and tiny Belgium sought the protection of Great Britain in a similar agreement. The French protected Belgium as well. When an anarchist killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, all these alliances clicked into place, and the world slid down the proverbial slippery slope into global war.

Adding to the carnage arising from 19th-century tactics on a modern battlefield adorned with machine guns, tanks, poison gas, mines, bombs and foremost, modern artillery, was the lack of medical knowledge.

The Great War was fought before antibiotics, before sulfa drugs, and the physicians of the day were woefully unprepared for the horrific bodily damage created by mortar shell, artillery and machine gun fire. It's estimated that twice as many soldiers on both sides died of an especially horrible condition called gas gangrene as from direct enemy fire.

When a surgeon repaired a wounded soldier he was taught to knit tight stitches that closed the wound to further infection. The wounds of the day were often packed with cattle, horse and human feces as shells spread the foreign material into soldier's bodies. It was nearly impossible to clean the wounds, and in a few days the sutures became red, swollen and crackled with little bubbles when pressed. An agonizing, putrefied death came within a few days.

The common soldier was the victim in this sick drama, just as modern soldiers are mere pawns for the great and powerful who chose to send them into combat.

As Americans we continue to spend militarily at a level that would have shocked world leaders 100 years ago. America's reluctant entrance into the war in 1917 was the tipping point that created our sacred myth of total American military superiority.

That myth was dispelled in Korea, Vietnam and the two excursions into Iraq, yet many still hold it dear.

When the only answer is a gun it's just a matter of time until someone pulls the trigger.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired public school educator.

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