In the United States, we recognize November 11th as Veteran's Day. But in Britain this day is Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, because it marks the anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. This piece of music is Cortège, written by Cecil Coles during the war while he served on the Western Front. Late in the war, Coles was killed while helping recover wounded comrades.
In some ways, the First World War, which began nearly one hundred years ago, has become not a forgotten war, but an ignored war. There is a tendency to view the war as a drawn out pointless stalemate that served as little more than a prelude to World War Two. But even though there is a small grain of truth in this view, the conflict was so much more than merely the endless slog of trench warfare that it has become famous for. The war was global in scope, and global in effect. I would suggest that in many ways the First World War was more important in shaping the world we now live in than the Second. The twentieth century was, in a very real sense, made by this conflict.
World War One was an incredibly destructive conflict: More British, French, and Italian soldiers died in this war than died in World War Two. More than nine million soldiers perished in the war and untold more civilians, especially in Eastern Europe. Three great empires - the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire - collapsed and broke apart under the stress of the war. Germany remained intact, but its Kaiser was forced into exile and a republic was put in his place. However, out of this conflict rose the modern world that we recognize now as national identity began to seriously assert itself. This is most obvious in the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, which resulted in several new nations being formed out of the carved up corpse of the dead empire. The Ottoman Empire was dismembered and mostly taken over by Britain, but this destruction led to the creation of modern Turkey.The unresolved conflicts in the Balkans and Middle-East resulting from the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires still haunt us to this day.
But this was also driven by policies adopted by the victors in their desperation to avoid defeat. Both the French and the British recruited troops from their colonial possessions. The French put nearly six hundred thousand men from their colonies into uniform, most of whom served in the war in Europe. The British also drew soldiers from their colonial possessions. From India alone the British put more than a million men under arms, and about seven hundred thousand Indian soldiers fought in Britain's campaigns against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle-East. When these soldiers returned home, their presence helped push the cause of independence in the various colonies. By leaning on their colonies during the war, the French and British watered the seeds of nationalism.
Without World War One, there probably would not have been a World War Two. As French Marshall Ferdinand Foch said of the Versailles Treaty, "This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years." The humiliating conditions imposed upon the Germans coupled with the myth of the "stab-in-the-back" formed a toxic cocktail that provided the conditions for Hitler's rise to power and the renewal of the conflict almost exactly on Foch's predicted schedule - he was only off by sixty-two days.
Without World War One, there likely would not have been a Soviet Union. The Tsar may have been deposed in some other way, but without the weight of warfare pressing down upon it the Kerensky government might have survived. Without the German push to get Lenin into Russia, the Bolsheviks would not have had a dynamic leader. No matter what might have otherwise happened, what actually did happen would not have. And without a Soviet Union there would have been no Cold War, which was the defining conflict of the second half of the century.
But the war had all kinds of other effects - with British encouragement due to their desire to deny the Germans a coaling station in the Far East, the Japanese took Tsingtao in China, and then expanded their influence in northern China, laying the groundwork for the Sino-Japanese conflict that would later ignite into the war in the Pacific against the United States. The war also marked the rise of the United States as a world power mostly due to the allies heavy reliance on American financing and industry to fuel their war efforts. The Great Depression was probably caused, in no small part, by the fallout from this conflict. And so on.
World War One made the twentieth century. It redrew the map cross the globe, and drove the cause of nationalism over empire. Almost every conflict that came afterwards was either caused by or influenced by this war. The politics and economics of our world still feel its effects. This conflict should not be ignored in the way that it seems to be.
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