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Lest we forget: the lessons of World War I

By Debbie Cosier

Fighter planes from WWI

On August 4, exactly 100 years ago on the other side of the world, King George V wrote this in his bedtime diary:

“I held a Council at 10:45 to declare war with Germany. It is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault. An enormous crowd collected outside the Palace; we went on to the balcony both before and after dinner. When they heard that war had been declared… the cheering was terrific. Please God may it soon be over and that he will protect dear Bertie’s life [who was serving with the Royal Navy]. Bed at 12.00.”

The British parliament had made a decision to go to war with Germany that ultimately led the world into what we now call the Great War, otherwise known as World War I. If you’re unsure of the details, I’ll save you the suspense: Bertie survived and later became King George VI, but over 16 million lives were lost worldwide and the horrifying results were recorded on grainy film for the first time.

Following WWI, ‘futility’ became the most commonly associated word with war. The romantic delusion that war was a great way for a young man to see a bit of the world (leading many 16 and 17 year-olds to enlist early using fake identities) was finally exposed by poets and writers of the time. On the back of the war came blistering criticism for those who took advantage of the unquestioning patriotism of young men; when boys barely out of their teens perished on the whim of those in power.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

By Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin saying “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – it is sweet and right to die for your country – was finally revealed for what it was: an elaborate lie. WWI (ironically, as we were to find out less than a generation later) became known as ‘the war to end all wars’.

Battlegrounds like Gallipoli, Verdun, Ypres and the Somme became household names and were recorded in Bibles as the hallowed beaches and fields where male kinfolk had fallen. For Australians, the casualty rate was among the highest of the war at almost 65% of those who enlisted (60,000 died). Of the approximately 4.9 million Australians, 416,809 enlisted for service, representing 38.7% of the total male population between 18 and 44 years of age.

But the Great War also brought with it some of the biggest and most rapid changes to society that the world witnessed in the 20thcentury.

At no other time in history were there so many developments in technology. Scientists became prized commodities for politicians who searched for any advantage they could claim over their enemy. The race for technology during the Great War saw the development of tanks, flamethrowers, tracer bullets, interrupter gear, airplane technology, submarines, ultrasound, pilotless drones, mobile x-ray machines, and even sanitary napkins.

Captured German communications equipment

One way to advance technology was through capturing the enemy’s communications equipment

An unexpected benefit of the war was women’s careers. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, the suffragette movement – which primarily sought the right to vote for women – had largely failed around the world. While Australian women had the right to vote and be elected to parliament as early as 1902, those in power were hesitant about whether women really should play an active role in society. Most women were still firmly stuck inside the home. War however, and the resulting scarcity of men, gave women an opportunity to take on jobs that were previously occupied by men. This helped change the attitudes towards women in the workplace.

By the end (1919) the ‘war to end all wars’ had left the world stunned with its devastating impact. With the Allied victory came a new realisation that this could never be allowed to happen again. It was no longer acceptable to annex other countries for political and economic gain, and even the vast colonies of the British Commonwealth slowly began to secede from English rule. In an attempt to avoid another war like this ever happening again, governments called for an international body devoted to global peace that would ensure all future conflicts be settled through diplomacy. Symbolically, the League of Nations offered hope that a war like this could never happen again. While the League of Nations proved ultimately unsuccessful when World War II broke out, the modern version (the United Nations) remains in existence for just this end.

Exactly 100 years on, we now have the chance to reflect and make choices about our future, celebrate how far we have come and perhaps change our focus to the things that truly matter.

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott said of the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra yesterday, “The events of 100 years ago still reverberate around the world today, and these stories, good and not so good, can help to shape us and to shape our times.”

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