Today marks the 100 year anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany and starting the bloody, tragic conflict that history calls World War I. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany, as well as other countries, are all marking the occasion with commemorative events, religious services, and a renewed discussion about what “the war to end all wars” means in the 21st century. As news of seemingly endless conflicts all over the world airs on news channels and websites, the Great War takes on a fascinating tone. As the world marks the beginning of the World War I centenary with its commemorations, thoughts naturally stray to the future, wondering what conflicts of today will be remembered in the same way. Or if they will be at all.
Today former enemies, Germany and France, commemorated the war together in a touching ceremony. French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck visited a mountain in the region of Alsace that was known as “The Man-Eater” to combatants of the time. They stood in silent contemplation before the ashes of some 12,000 unknown soldiers from both sides that rest peacefully together in a crypt. Then in front of the world and the cameras of the world press, these two leaders embraced as friends in a representation of the good relationship between two former enemies.
Fighting between France and Germany was some of the fiercest of the Great War and there were many bitter grudges held after its conclusion. Both sides suffered greatly in the world’s first modern war. Machine guns, gas, and new troubles like “shell shock,” which we now know as PTSD, made the fighting in France a living hell from which many soldiers thought they would never escape. Most did not. The veterans of that campaign never truly got over from their experiences and carried scars and unseen traumas with them their entire lives. Others found release in death which may have seemed like a kindness to those fated to survive. The new experience of terrible war left its mark on the soldiers and the countries that sent them into the trenches.
A certain amount of animosity for the creating of such a terrible place could have left scars that would never heal. But on that feared mountain 100 years later, something much different was in evidence. Francois Hollande said, “France and Germany, beyond suffering and grief, had the audacity to reconcile,” a sentiment echoed by the German president. For them, the lesson of Alsace and the World War I centenary was that the greatest bravery of those who fight is best commemorated through peace.
This is a lesson that the world needs at this time. The situations in Ukraine and in Gaza are two of the worst military conflicts of the present day. Thousands are dying and suffering, many of them innocent civilians. The conflict in Ukraine is relatively new, but it has its basis in old grudges. The situation in Gaza seems to be without end and is reaching new heights of violence and useless waste of life, including children. For the people mired in such conflicts, the horrors of war are real while many people in other places can only imagine them. How they must envy the peace that France and Germany have found with each other, if they can spare a thought for it at all in the midst of trying to stay alive. For them, peace would truly be audacious, especially since it seems so distant and impossible.
Britain, one of the major players in the first World War, is also commemorating the centenary. In churches all over the country, faithful people will bow their heads and commune with their higher power over the meaning of such a horrific event. The politics of the time are of less consequence than the shattered psyches of the people and nations it left behind. Questions of heroism, glory, empire and justice linger in the air long after the fog of war has cleared. In 2014, the intellectual and spiritual crises of 1914 have not lost their importance. Instead they seem to have gained in urgency and answers are just as scarce as they were then. To many, it feels as though the world has not progressed very much at all, a disheartening state of affairs for such a supposedly advanced age of man.
Nevertheless, the commemoration of the World War I centenary also has its rays of hope amid all the questions and unquiet ruminations. Tomorrow in the United Kingdom between the hours of 10pm and 11pm, the lights will be shut off in homes and public buildings and many places will light a single candle. This is done to remember Britain’s declaration of war which was issued on Aug. 4, 1914. It was that event that created the world at war, that led to the darkness of its tragic course and, in many ways, the darkness of today’s musings. Yet it is appropriate that even in the middle of such darkness, a light remains. It is not the strongest light, nor is it the most stable, but it is there despite all that. For many in 1914, that ray of light was hope: hope for peace and hope for life. In 2014, such hope remains and will continue to do so for the next 100 years.
The lessons of World War I were many. Advances in warfare brought new experiences to troops and the advent of PTSD, which is still a problem today. The fallout of the Great War is responsible for much of Europe and the wider world’s make-up, conflicts, and political situations. Without World War I the world would be much different, though it cannot be known whether it would be better or worse. The centennial anniversary of the beginning of the war is a time for sober reflection on causes, troubles, and the progress of peace. For many, it represents a hope that can never die. If France and Germany can be good friends and allies after the horrific events of the war to end all wars, then perhaps there is hope for Gaza and Israel and Ukraine as well. For the world, the commemoration World War I centenary is one part remembrance and one part look forward to a more peaceful future for everyone.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury