Lessons from World War I

Hany Ghoraba
Wednesday 21 Nov 2018

This year’s centennial of the end of the First World War has many important lessons for the present

Many historians and political analysts view World War II as the most important event in modern world history, and few of them treat the First World War with the same respect. However, World War II had far greater impacts than are credited by these historians, and these have been pointed to as the world marks a century since the end of the First World War by the signing of the famous Armistice Agreement in November 1918.

This marked the end of a bloody chapter in history that witnessed the deaths of 21 million people and paved the way for further bloodshed in World War Two.

World War I, or the Great War, was the first glimpse of what modern warfare would be like. The introduction of airplanes, aerial bombardments and dog fighting in the skies of Europe during the course of the war was a revolution in the history of warfare.

It meant that no longer could a strong ground army made up of infantry, cavalry and cannons suffice alone without aerial coverage. The same war witnessed the final eclipse of the cavalry’s role on the battlefield.

Such units had been essential to any army worth the name since the Bronze Age, and they had been instrumental in all warfare through the early modern and early industrial periods.

But now horses and cavalry units were replaced by mechanical infantry units and armoured tanks, which were first introduced by the British in 1916 as a possible solution to trench warfare.

They later turned the tide of battles up to and including the Second World War, when tanks became the main component of all ground forces.

World War II also saw the first battles in the sky in the ferocious dogfights in which the Germans seemed to excel in the early episodes of the war, with legendary pilots such as the German Manfred Von Richthofen, also known as the “Red Baron,” dominating the skies until his death in 1918.

Von Richthofen was possibly the most decorated pilot in history and was even respected by his enemies. His exceptional flying skills affected how aerial warfare was taught and fought for years afterwards and marked the importance of possessing a strong air force able to back up ground troops no matter how strong the latter were thought to be.

The lack of proper defensive tactics in the First World War coupled with the advanced weapons introduced during its course, including modern machine guns, contributed to the enormous human casualties that the belligerent nations had experienced by the end of the war.

According to some estimates, these totalled nearly 41 million men, 20 million of whom were killed and 21 million injured.

As a result of World War I, two major empires, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) and the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) saw their final days.

Both had played major roles in the course of history, and they were replaced by Austria and the other successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Republic of Turkey.

The war also saw the rise of the former Soviet Union from the ashes of a retreating Russian Empire in October 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution, itself later constituting one of the world’s two superpowers.

Perhaps the most critical result of the war was that it did not end the hostilities between the belligerent nations, as the formal end of the conflict in the Treaty of Versailles was an explosive charge that exploded nearly two decades later igniting the Second World War.

Most historians consider World War I to be simply the prelude to the second, and the Treaty of Versailles was perceived to be so humiliating to the Germans that German dictator Adolf Hitler managed to manipulate them into fighting a second war to reverse it.

Among the other results of this was the end of the ill-fated League of Nations (1920-1946), which had aimed to keep the peace but had not been able to do so because this international body did not have effective tools.

The present centennial of the Armistice serves two purposes, the first being to remember the sacrifices of the soldiers in the course of the war and how they paid the heaviest of prices for foolish imperialist and colonialist policies.

The second is that the centennial of the end of World War I serves as a reminder of how far destruction can go if reason does not prevail.

Sadly, the world is now living through one of its most unstable periods in decades, and the current struggle between the world’s powers that includes threats and counter-threats resembles the similar atmosphere before the First World War.

Only the players are different. There was an arms race in Europe between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany on one side and the French and Russians on the other, and this marked the beginning of a long conflict and ended in global war in 1914.

The current American, Chinese and Russian arms race and the possible US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed in 1987 marks an ominous downturn in events resembling those that took place before World War I.

Europeans before 1914 were living in relative prosperity, and Europe constituted two-thirds of the world’s economy, signifying the strength of the European powers compared to the rest of the world.

All this was squandered on the battlefield in search of further gains and yet more colonies.

The current rise in radicalism and the global war on terrorism have not quelled the chances of a new global conflict. There are hotspots across the world that could ignite a nuclear conflict, such as on the Korean Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent and in the Middle East.

Even in the West there has been the rise of the alt-right and ultranationalist far-right that spare no efforts in fostering hate and stirring up racism within Western societies.

Things could get worse in unforeseen ways. In November this year, 200 neo-Nazis serving in the German army were arrested for plotting the assassination of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other politicians as well as of a number of immigrants in a plot they called “Day X”.

The number of those involved is significant, especially since these German Special Forces could have wrought havoc on the German state.

Some may downplay this as an event of secondary importance, but that could be a fatal mistake. The butterfly effects of such a plot could have been catastrophic, and they could have been the catalyst for further events to follow.

World War I was ignited by the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) in Sarajevo. Who knows what could have been the impact of the later assassination plot had it been allowed to succeed.

With the world’s nuclear powers now possessing enough firepower to destroy a planet 50 times the size of Earth, the warning signs could not be more serious.

Humanity cannot afford to ignore even the slightest signs of warning. Let us hope that World War II will be the last global war witnessed on this planet, and let the humbling lessons to be drawn from World War I be our guide in saving ourselves and the planet.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Lessons from World War I

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