Legacy of the First World War

“It was not worth even one life,” said Harry Patch shortly before he died in 2009 at the age of 111. He was the last survivor of the 65 million soldiers who fought in the First World War, and by the time he died it was a normal, quite unremarkable thing to say. But he would never have said it in 1914.              

The First World War was when the human race first began to question the whole institution of war: how useful it is, but also how inevitable it really is. And the answer to both questions is: not very.

The First World War was not an aberration. Politically, it was a perfectly normal event. Ever since the rise of modern centralised states in 16th-century Europe, they had all gone to war with each other in two big alliances at around half-century intervals.

Nobody minded much, because the wars mostly involved small professional armies, the casualties were low, and hardly any major player ever crashed out of the system entirely. But the First World War was very different MILITARILY.

The armies were now ten times as big, because rich industrialised countries could afford to put most of the adult male population into uniform. So the soldiers getting killed were part of the community, not the wastrels and drunks who manned the old professional armies. And they were getting killed in unprecedented numbers.

The new weapons – machine guns, modern artillery and so on – were very efficient killing machines, and within a month the soldiers had to take shelter in trenches from the “storm of steel”. They spent the rest of the war trying to break through the trenches, and by the end of it 9 million of them had been killed. THAT is what changed everything.

The senior politicians and diplomats of 1918 could see that the old international system was now delivering catastrophe, and had to be changed. So they created the League of Nations, outlawed aggressive war, and invented the concept of “collective security” to enforce the new international rules.

The League of Nations failed, so we got the Second World War only twenty years later. That one was bigger and worse – but at the end, everybody tried again. They had to.

The United Nations was founded in 1945, with more realistic rules than the League of Nations. But the goal was the same: to stop wars among the great powers, for those are the wars that kill in the millions – especially now that they have nuclear weapons.

The UN hasn’t failed yet in its main task: no great power has fought any other for the past 69 years. The glass is more than half-full.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.


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