i was planning a new world wide wednesdays this week, but given that it's remembrance day, i thought it would be appropriate to bring back this one from last year. i haven't changed my opinion one bit: i believe world war i was the defining event of the twentieth century and it harms us all that we forget its lessons. and sadly, yes, i do believe that those lessons have been largely forgotten, things like the importance of caring for veterans, the injustice of the moneyed classes using the poor as almost literal cannon fodder, the fact that conflicts are rarely black and white, but have a lot of room for interpretation and can get pretty hysterical very quickly. i could go on, but i think my point is made. here's hoping this year brings something better.
i thought i'd indulge in a bit of a departure this week, in remembrance of what i firmly believe is the defining event of the twentieth century: world war i. it's certainly arguable, but i've thought about it a lot and i'm pretty firm in my opinion. because the second world war was better documented and made a better story [good versus evil], it has overshadowed its predecessor and this has done us all a great disservice. the
"great war" as it was known [or, more optimistically "the war to end all wars"] is responsible for a staggering amount that we now take for granted. so today's world wide wednesday will take a look at some of those.
- rosie the riveter and her world war ii colleagues might get all the glory, but it was in world war i that women first moved into the workforce to do the work of men sent off to the front. their work greatly advanced the cause of women's rights and the suffrage movement achieved their aim of having the franchise [i.e., the right to vote] extended to women throughout europe and north america as a result. [side note :: in canada, women's suffrage was granted by conservative prime minister robert borden in 1917-18 specifically because of the war. desperate to gain support for his policy of conscription, borden extended voting rights to women who were in service, war widows and female relatives of men serving in the war. he also courted members of the opposition liberal party to join him as part of a unionist government, because, with the war and all, he felt canada needn't concern itself with things like having multiple political parties. these strategies were successful and borden won re-election with a parliamentary majority in the election of 1917.]
- plastic surgery had been in its infancy, but was forced to advance at warp speed because of the war. one of the major causes of injury to soldiers in the field was shrapnel and many returned from service with faces almost literally destroyed. facial reconstruction was employed wherever possible, but not all could be treated this way. doctor sir henry gillies and american sculptor anna coleman watts ladd pioneered the development of prosthetics designed to cover the wounded portion of a soldier's face with a mask molded based on photos taken before the disfigurement and painted to match the skin as closely as possible.
- most of the machines which we now think of as synonymous with armed conflict were introduced in the first world war. it was the first time that airplanes had been used as an integral part of battles. machine guns were widely used for the first time. although better known for their work in the second world war, submarines, particularly german u-boats, were deployed to great effect in the first world war. but perhaps the most memorable advance in military hardware were the vehicles dubbed "landships". their construction was so secret that even the [women] workers building them were told that they were some form of mobile water reservoir. they were shipped out to the front using this same deception- that they were water storage tanks and not weapons. this is how the "landships" came to be nicknamed "tanks". [side note :: one of the weapons most associated with world war one is toxic gas. it was first used by france, but became increasingly widespread throughout the war. once the participating nations had seen its horrific effects, they agreed that such weapons were too awful to be used in any future conflicts. and no one ever used a chemical weapon again, ever, anywhere in the world.]
- america chose to stay outside the fray for some time, however both sides desperately hoped to convince the new world powerhouse to step in on their side. the british were terrified that america's considerable jewish lobby would convince the government to enter the war on the german side, since many american jews were of german ancestry. so in order to influence them, the british government agreed to support the jewish claim for a homeland in the middle east. at the same time, in order to get armies from the arabian peninsula to agree to rebel against the ottoman empire, the british promised arabian leaders that they would support their right to sovereignty in their own lands. and behind everyone's back, they were negotiating with their longtime rivals but world war allies france to carve up the middle east between them. [hey, weren't we just talking about that?] it's not like the middle east was all calm and love beforehand, but much of the modern conflict in that area can be traced to this duplicitous [or triplicitous?] british policy during world war one. [side note :: american president woodrow wilson was quite proud of the fact that he had not entered the war when he ran for re-election in 1916: his election slogan was "he kept us out of the war". three months after his inauguration in 1917, he sent america to war.]
- the great war introduced an ugly new word to the english lexicon: genocide. although not coined until 1943, the term was used originally to describe the organised mass killings of one and a half million armenians by the turkish government starting in 1915. this systematic slaughter may have inspired a later one. during the 1946 war crimes trials in nuremburg, the prosecution introduced a transcript of adolf hitler's "obersalzburg speech", given a week before his army invaded poland. one draft of the speech contained the line "who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the armenians?" prosecutors argued that this mention of the armenian genocide indicated that hitler was already planning a mass extermination of his own, with the expectation that it too would be forgotten. [side note :: to this day, the turkish government denies the claim that a genocide took place. in fact, only twenty-three countries worldwide acknowledge it.]
- although the end of world war ii is generally thought to have heralded the collapse of european empires, the process was well underway by the end of the first war. although germany didn't have much of an empire to speak of [they'd only had a country for a little more than forty years when the war broke out], their royal family was deposed and sent into exile. russia's royal family weren't so lucky. the ottoman and austro-hungarian empires were already in turmoil before the war [and indeed, their instability was one of the war's principal causes] and both collapsed in its wake. only the british monarch was able to survive his continental cousins. and i do mean cousins. with all this talk about different nations, it can be easy to forget that the rulers of britain, germany and russia were fairly closely related. they didn't call queen victoria the grandmother of europe for nothing. [side note :: some historians argue that the kaiser's refusal to back away from military commitments that put germany on a collision course with russia was due to the fact that he believed that king george v would never be able to back one of his cousins against the other and that britain would therefore remain neutral in any conflict. a rather disastrous gamble as it turned out.]
|wounded soldier with facial prosthetic|
|the family portrait with victoria, wilhelm, george and nicholas|
those are just a few of the effects of the great war that we continue to see today. but there are many more. i'm not even getting into a discussion of serbia, bosnia and the pan-slavic movement [although i probably will in a future www instalment]. my point is just to offer a few reminders of how the first world war continues to colour our perception of the world, even though we've forgotten much of the lessons it taught. when it comes to fighting, every state likes to invoke the metaphor of world war ii- that battle is an unpleasant necessity in the face of evil. but i believe we have much more to learn from the tumultuous world of the early twentieth century, when old powers were in the decline, new ones were on the ascendant and a lot of leaders out of touch with the people they supposedly lead bickered and stumbled their way into one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.
[parting note :: i feel like i should mention that searching for images of world war one-era prosthetic masks is the single most unpleasant thing i have ever had to do in writing this blog. if you ever want to really expose yourself to the horrors of war, i invite you to try your luck with google. if you'd like to sleep again, i suggest you take my word for it: you're happier not knowing.]