Editor’s Note: Today is Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in the United States. So we’re taking a brief intermission from outright hockey talk and engaging in a look back with our pal Rex.
This past summer marked
the centennial anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, what
would later come to be called World War I. Coverage of the various
observances and speeches to mark that date dominated much of the news
cycle of August, when it wasn’t focusing on outbreaks of Ebola in West
Africa; conflict, annexation and military brinkmanship in the
Ukraine; and the rise of an ideological pseudo-state in central Iraq
and Eastern Syria.
For some observers it
appeared that history was playing something of a cruel practical joke
on humanity as so many of the current themes seemed to be echoes of
the events we were solemnly commemorating. The seeds of much of our discord and suffering today and over the past one hundred years can be traced back to the events that culminated in war on August 5th, 1914 and the peace that ended it on November 11th, 1918.
The First World War didn’t
begin as a discrete event, the way one can time the sunrise or
sunset, but rather as a series of smaller circumstances that tumbled forward, one
upon another until the massive weight of so much political, military
and personal capital had crashed down into an ever-expanding cycle of
violence such that the only way it would stop was when
those warring powers had ran out of able-bodied young men – and “able-bodied” was a
definition open to a graduating level of interpretation as the
conflict dragged on. Indeed, early on in the war one officer remarked
that the eventual victor would be that nation with last ten thousand
Typically we begin with one event, the
assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavril Princip, prompting
the Austro-Hungarian Empire to issue an ultimatum to Serbia designed
to force the latter into capitulation to annexation which thus
prompted Russian intervention on its behalf. The declaration of war between those
two empires set off a chain reaction whose final trap, the
involvement of the United States in the war, wouldn’t spring until
April of 1917 and the entire conclusion of which would not occur for
another four years, ending on November 11th,
In all, 35 countries
and/or empires were at war, with 27 of those siding with the Entente
powers, later called the Allies, and 8 for the Central powers. The
primary powers included those of the British, Russian, Ottoman and
Austro-Hungarian empires as well as Germany and the United States
all of whose declarations meant the additional involvement of another
12 countries such as Canada, Newfoundland, the Philippine Islands,
Australia, Hawaii and many other semi-autonomous colonies.
It is a testament to some
of the most damning faults of human nature that so many countries
became involved in such a conflict spanning virtually the entire
globe in pursuit of motives that often devolved into issues of
colonialism and petty territorial claims.
In a few cases insurgent
or independence movements were convinced to take up arms against
their governing powers. These populations were often abandoned or
abused by their imperial patrons during the post-war Paris peace
Over the course of four years the foundation stones of many of our most prominent concerns and challenges of the modern age would be unceremoniously laid.
There is perhaps no other
document from this time that so dominates our world today as the
Sykes-Picot agreement and its latter incarnation initiated between
British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French President Clemenceau
at the Paris peace negotiations. Initially drawn up by Mark Sykes, a
British MP, and Francois Georges-Picot, a French diplomat, this
agreement was designed as a way to divide the territory of the Middle
East between Britain and France as the spoils of war following the
anticipated defeat and subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
That this agreement was
negotiated and finalized during the darkest days on the Western Front
when the French army was collapsing, the British were hanging on in the Western Front by
their skin of their teeth and the Russian army was losing ground
steadily illustrates the extent that cynicism, arrogance and
blind avarice pervaded many European governments at the
The original agreement
would have separated the area spanning from the coast of Palestine to
the borders of modern-day Iran into two separate spheres of influence
and administration between France and Britain. This bald-faced
colonialism, independent of the wishes and interests of the local
inhabitants, was bland by comparison to the final agreement made in
Paris, where the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and
TransJordan (later Jordan) originated, born of the imaginations,
and to serve the political aims of, the European powers.
What the agreement left us
with was a drawing up of the Middle East that in no way reflected the
traditional or real delineations of populations in the area.
Minorities took power over fractured majorities split between several
new countries or territories and sectarian tensions, always near the
surface in an area of the world where so much of human history has
played out, came to the fore almost immediately. Many of those borders exist to this day.
Only this past summer the
leader of the ISIS movement, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, stated that “this
blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the
coffin of the Sykes–Picot conspiracy”.
That an insurgent leader
in a 21st century
proto-military campaign directly references a centuries’ old treaty that most citizens of the signatory nations would not even recognize speaks to the real impact of the document. Where
many politicians in the West today may be hard-pressed to define
the Sykes-Picot agreement, let alone its impact on the Middle East
today, it is a very real and living document in the subconscious of
those in the region today living under its consequences.
Added to the Sykes-Picot
Agreement was the Balfour declaration, which gave explicit approval
from the British government for a Jewish homeland within the region of Palestine around the same
time that the British were negotiating the partition of the Middle
East with France and their Arab allies represented by King Hussein in
the Hejaz region, what we call the Arabian peninsula today.
To say that the Balfour
declaration was inflammatory to Britain’s allies would be something
of an understatement, as it essentially offered territory to a third
party that was not the Empire’s to give but nevertheless had also been tacitly agreed upon with the French as being within the region of their Syrian
claim, and at the same time been suggested as a potential reward to the Arabs under King Hussein
in exchange for his insurgency against the Turks.
The relations between the
local Jewish and Arab populations living under Ottoman rule were
occasionally strained but more or less part of a larger polyglot
system that functioned in spite of Ottoman administration as often as
a result of it. The publication of this declaration and the
subsequent gerrymandering of territorial lines irrespective of local
interests or previous agreements to local populations would quickly
undermine relations between the two placing them almost irrevocably at odds with one another.
The involvement of the
British, French, and later other Allies powers in the area in the
region eventually poisoned relations to an extent that once the
state of Israel was officially declared in 1948 by UN mandate it was
all but a certainty that the new nation would exist in a state of
almost perpetual war within the region.
Obviously this isn’t
meant to be a complete compendium of the many other factors that have
gone into the current Israel/Palestinian relationship, but rather to
focus on those mitigating circumstances directly related to the Great
The Great War was eventually concluded by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles following the near complete collapse of all Central Powers, with Germany holding out the longest. It set forth heavy war reparations, territorial forfeitures and Imperial dismantlement, and complete demilitarization for the vanquished nations.
The Treaty of Versailles could not claim to have lived even one quarter of the time
that the Sykes-Picot agreement has or did (its current relevance is
up for debate).
By the eve of the Second World War, following the
ascension of Adolf Hitler and Nazism in Germany, the success of his re-arming program,
Anschluss and Lebensraum territorial grabs under way and his hosting the Olympics (an event reincarnated at the end of the
previous century with the specific intention of working to end
further international conflict) the Treaty itself had become a paper
tiger at best and a source of mockery and derision at worst.
By the fall of 1939, gone
were the countries of Czechoslovakia, Bohemia, Hungary, and Austria
and soon so too would be Poland. Within a few years much of the rest of Europe would be under the thrall of either the Axis powers or the Soviet Union.
Everything that the Treaty
of Versailles had been intended to create by way of democratic states
independently pursuing self-determination through peaceful means, and
thus simultaneously prevent in the way of belligerent nations heading
to war, was undone in a grand crescendo of flame and death.
The Treaty itself was
mean-spirited and spiteful, with Britain and France actively
undermining the spirit of reconciliation originally proposed by US
President Woodrow Wilson. Filled with vengeance and a level of
cynical hypocrisy that would give most of today’s leaders pause, a
reasonable observer could not have failed to notice that the Treaty
would spur a return to bloodshed, as HG Wells did in his book “The
Shape of Things To Come”.
Versailles acted as a
catalyst for the Second World War, the outcomes from which Europe has
only relatively recently recovered. Perhaps even then not so, if one
looks at the imagery called upon by both sides in the recent
Ukrainian-Russia conflict, with the latter unabashedly drawing upon old
Soviet imagery of fascists and the Great Patriotic War – the
Russian term for the Second World War.
One oft-forgotten victim
of the First World War is the continent of Africa. At the time of the
outbreak of war in 1914 most of the continent was dominated by British
colonial administrations and these territories were drawn upon
heavily to support the war effort, in both natural and human
resources. Many African soldiers were brought into the British
military, by a variety of means, to fight in Europe and other
emerging theaters. Yet, when the peace treaty was being negotiated
none of the African territories were permitted to send delegates,
while delegations were received from the Indian, Canadian, and ANZAC
What African territories
were held by Germany were divided up between the Entente, primarily
France and Britain, with no heed to traditional territorial
boundaries or population dispersion. This partition of the continent
into convenient resource parcels for European powers created
artificial boundaries which survive even today and have had very real
and recent bloody after effects in the way of genocides in Rwanda and
Darfur. As with the nations of the Middle East, this has resulted in a century largely lost to war.
Many of these countries
gained independence, of a sort, during the post-WWII Imperial
deconstruction that took place in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but the
exploitative colonial administration was often replaced wholesale by
local power brokers who used tribal allegiances and old power
imbalances between majorities and minorities within the population to
fashion de facto dictatorships. In essence they changed the names on
the doors but kept up the old business practices, sometimes even
becoming more exploitative and ruthless than at any time during
The Treaty of Versailles did not directly cost Africa one hundred years of purgatory. However, it did forge a political environment that further exploited the continent and those living there for far longer than might otherwise have been.
The outbreak of Ebola in
West Africa today is not, in and of itself, a direct result of the
First World War, but the limits of the political ability of the state in
which it has been prevalent are. Many of these countries were
designed in some way to be politically and socially ineffective by
dividing populations into small fractions of a disparate polity, and
their relative ineffectiveness at managing the response to this
disease is in part a remnant of their colonial past that brought forth these nations with that specific goal in mind.
Following the Great War,
fate had one more terrible joke to play on the world: the Spanish
Influenza. Debates still continue as to its exact point of origin,
but the Spanish Influenza was a pandemic unlike any other in human
history, aided by the circumstantial interconnectedness of the
world’s population – soldiers from across the globe were brought
together to train, live and die for the war effort by many of the
The emergence of the virus
coinciding approximately with the cessation of hostilities and the
eventual dispersion of military units to their various points of
origin may have helped to spread the disease on a global scale that
had never before been fully realized in human history, from remote
islands in the Pacific to the northernmost reaches of the Arctic.
The resulting losses dwarf
those from the Great War and the casualty list only compounded the
impact of the war in that it was the healthy and young who were
falling prey to the virus, those who had not already been slaughtered overseas were being killed by the virus. The overall imprecision of the total
mortality number helps to illustrate the incredible destruction it
both proceeded from and helped continue: between 50 million and 100
However, the experience
did foster within the international community a desire to create a
body politic which could be tasked somehow with tracking and
coordinating responses to such disease outbreaks. It would not come
into existence for another thirty years, but the World Health
Organization owes a small part of its existence to the global
experience of that Spanish Influenza pandemic.
There are, of course, many
other mundane reminders of the effect the Great War had on the world,
from simple colloquialisms such as “over the top”, or government
policies like income tax. The modern professional military owes many
of its beginnings to the mass mobilization of the war effort and the
denouement following the armistice. Universal suffrage began in
Canada with the push to extend the vote to women, particularly those
women who had relatives fighting overseas, and was championed by the
government of Robert Borden as a measure to help ensure the passage
of the Military Service Act in the election of 1917. And of course
the ubiquitous Remembrance Day poppy is now a near-universally
recognized symbol of the fallen from this war and its many
successors, a reflection of the words of Lt. Col. John McCrae.
The Treaty of Versailles,
which officially ended hostilities amongst the Central and Entente
powers on November 11th,
1918, would sow dragon’s teeth into the soil of Europe and spawn an
even deadlier conflict within another generation.
It also begat the League
of Nations: a commonly-derided early attempt at a global community
that was to work to end war amongst nations. The League, although a
failure, would act as a framework for its descendant, the United Nations.
Though it may seem somewhat hollow on a day dedicated to
commemorating the millions who died in these wars and others since,
it deserves to be noted that no major powers have engaged in open
warfare since 1946. Given the effectiveness and proliferation of
nuclear weaponry that is a remarkable achievement and worthy of sobering appreciation.
Total dead during the
First World War – Between 16 million and 17 million
Total dead due to Spanish
Influenza – Between 50 million and 100 million
Total dead during the
Second World War – Between 60 million and 80 million
Topics of discussion that
dominate Remembrance Day events typically find the balance between
somber reflection and inspirational sacrifice. On occasion they can
be usurped to serve political means by emphasizing a militaristic
patriotism tied to current events or political agendas.
It is crucial that the
lessons and ramifications of the Great War, and those conflicts that
followed, be remembered without distraction or distortion.
The losses in human terms
had a very real, direct, and innately human cause – the war did not
happen to the world the way a hurricane strikes an island. It was
brought about by the decisions and actions, both unintentional and deliberate, of the people who were largely in power throughout the
world at the time. It was on occasion perpetuated by the callous decisions of
officers and politicians entrusted to safeguard against just such a calamity.
Divorcing ourselves from
those that were responsible for the Great War while simultaneously
claiming indentured brotherhood with those who fought in it would be
a dangerous hypocrisy that leads too often to a repetition of
tragedy. We have as much in common with those that died as with those
that ordered the killing, and with this comes both the duty to
remember the fallen and the responsibility to ensure we do not vainly
march again into such a disaster.
It is a disservice to
those that perished, by whatever means and for whichever cause, to
look past the culpability of those who not only incited but sustained
and escalated the conflicts as well as laid the foundation for the
conflicts that haunt us today.
If we cannot learn these
concrete lessons on the human condition from the two World Wars, and
dozens thereafter, then the loss of over 100 million people over the
course of a decade of warfare is made all that much more meaningless
and the tragic history of human conflict will still have many
chapters left to write.