On Nov. 11 a hundred years ago, the war that was supposed to end all wars shuddered to an end. In commemoration of that day, five weeks from now, we’ll all recall, at least in outline, what happened. There will be solemn tributes and moments of silence as clocks tick down to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
But I don’t think we should let it go at that. This was, after all, the worst self-inflicted wound our species had ever suffered up till that time. Compressing the events of four grim years into a single day of remembrance seems wholly inadequate.
So to set the stage, this is the first of five columns on different aspects of the war that seem, to me, especially memorable. And I want to begin with what might appear a relatively incidental matter, set against a canvas of blood and horror.
The First World War was the day of reckoning that altered forever how we think and talk about ourselves. Previous wars, though often bloody, seemed part and parcel of the times. People adapted and life went on, not greatly altered by the latest in an endless stream of conflicts.
But the Great War was a turning point, the point at which humanity lost its innocence and more than that, its faith in the ultimate goodness of human beings.
Here were the beginnings of moral relativism, which discards the idea of an absolute right and wrong.
You find that in the thoughts of absurdists such as Franz Kafka, and the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who, faced with the horrors of war, ridiculed conformity to established values.
In art, painters such as Dali and Picasso experimented with surrealism, inspired again by the idea that the world had gone mad, and that reality was too ugly to confront.
But it was in poetry and writing, more than any other medium, that the Great War stirred unprecedented heartbreak.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Those words were written by a Canadian military physician, Lt.-Col. John McCrae. It took him several drafts to produce perhaps the most famous war poem ever written.
Thus also Rupert Brooke’s fateful lines:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England.
Brooke died in service at the age of 28.
And maybe that most poignant of all the postwar memoirs, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That. Graves called it “my bitter leave-taking of England,” but it was also a leave-taking of everything that had seemed solid and enduring.
All of which is to say that the First World War was about more than physical death. It was an indictment of everything we thought we stood for. It broke not only bones, it broke the human spirit.
When former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger met Chinese leader Zhou Enlai, Kissinger asked him what he thought the results of the French Revolution had been. Zhou replied it was too soon to tell.
While this might have been an attempt to tweak the academically minded Kissinger, it spoke to a broader truth.
At the outbreak of the Great War, no one envisioned what would happen. Canadian soldiers embarking for France assured their loved ones they would be home by Christmas.
That four years of carnage ensued — carnage wished by none — profoundly weakened our sense that the future could be managed. Even more, it undermined the cornerstone of civilization itself — the idea that in the end, common sense and sanity will prevail.
A century later, nothing has happened to rebuild those foundations. That is one of the legacies of a war that should have ended all wars, but failed to do so.
Next week, the origins of the conflict.