The lost world of WWI
World leaders gathered at the Belgian industrial city of Liege on Aug. 4 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, following the German invasion then of neutral Belgium.
The invasion prompted Britain to declare war on Germany, triggering a chain of war declarations among European powers that plunged the continent into the abyss of a four-year conflict that killed more than 9 million and altered the world’s political landscape up to the end of the 20th century.
Leaders across Europe—from Britain, Ireland, France, Germany Austria and Malta—attended the commemoration services at the Allied War Memorial in Cointe, Liege, highlighting lessons to be learned in the face of today’s many crises, including the threat of further Russian annexation of parts of Ukraine.
Belgium’s King Philippe told leaders gathered in the city that “World War I reminds [us] to reflect on our responsibility to bring people together.”
French President Francois Hollande recalled that the German invasion of neutral Belgium in early August 1914 turned what had been a localized Balkans war into a global conflagration, raising current parallels.
“How can we remain neutral today when a people not far from Europe [are] fighting for their rights?” he said, clearly referring to the Ukraine crisis.
The memorial services reminded the world that on the eve of the German invasion, then British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey lamented as Berlin rejected London’s ultimatum to respect Belgium’s neutrality on Aug. 4.
Lamps going out
“The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he said. “We shall not see them lit in our time again.”
A report by Agence France-Presse sums up the cataclysmic consequences of the failure of the ultimatum: “The rest is history—10 million troops dead, 20 million injured, millions of civilian victims, empires toppled, the world remade.”
At commemorative services at St. Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons, Hollande paid tribute to Belgium, saying it had been the first battleground of World War I and had offered “solid resistance” in Liege.
“Deadly days” followed when French and British soldiers joined the conflict. The first major battles between the British and German armies took place at Mons.
According to BBC News, it was on the outskirts of Mons where the British and German armies first clashed in a battle unlike the muddy trench warfare of the next four years.
In an address at St. Symphorien, British Prime Minister David Cameron rose to the spirit of the occasion in describing World War I as a conflict that was not just a global war.
“Every war is cruel but this war was unlike any other—the unspeakable carnage, the unbearable carnage, the almost unbelievable bravery one hundred years on. It is right that we meet here around the world to remember,” Cameron said.
He said it was in Mons, too, where the last British soldier was killed on Nov. 11, 1918, the very day of the armistice that ended hostilities after four bloody years. He called on the world to never fail to cherish peace.
Prelude to WWII
“Here in Europe, we saw not the war to end all wars but the precursor of another and violent conflict just two decades later,” Cameron said, echoing the argument that the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which drew the post-WWI settlement in Europe, led to World War II.
The German dictator Adolf Hitler denounced the treaty—under which Germany lost territories—as a “stab on the back,” the term he used in his campaign to recover these territories.
Wilderness of concrete
That world war was most vividly described to BBC journalists by Fernand Moxhet, curator of Fort de Loncin museum near Liege, in a tour of the fort, whose remains were preserved as “a wilderness of concrete and steel as it was left when German artillery destroyed the Belgian defenses at the start of the war.”
When the Germans swept into Belgium on Aug. 4, 1914, Moxhet told journalists that Fort de Loncin and other defenses around Liege stood in the way of a swift advance.
Moxhet showed to the journalists that in the museum, there was regimental drum sitting above a Maxim gun—whose withering fire would claim so many lives in the Great War.
According to BBC journalists, the juxtaposition of drum and machine gun stands as a reminder of how war changed in the 100 years since Napoleon’s armies had threatened the peace of Europe.
Moxhet told BBC: “These men fought for the belief in their country. In World War II, they fought because they had to. Nowadays, we don’t want to fight at all. The war also saw the first victims of a phenomenon that would blight the modern age: civilian victims of atrocity and indiscriminate shelling.”
Millions would also be killed and uprooted during the course of the conflict, from the lands of the Ottoman and Russian empires in the east to the towns and cities on the Western front.
The Western front may have been the main theater of war but battles were also fought in the Middle East, where Allied forces landed in 1915 at Gallipoli in Turkey.
Thus, the European fronts bore the brunt of the carnage and the devastating power of weapons of new technology, notably tanks, airplanes and submarines that were introduced on the Western front, as if the trench warfare didn’t take a heavy toll on human lives.
The Great War was the first and last of the wars of empires of the 20th century—the German and Austria-Hungarian Empires, which made up the Central Powers; the British Empire, which led the Allies, among them the French Republic; and the Ottoman Empire seated in Istanbul.
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