11am, 11/11/1918. The day the guns fell silent in Europe, after over 4 years of the bloodiest war ever. The war that became known as the Great War. Or the War to End All Wars.
Because modern warfare had become so terrible. So deadly. So damaging that it would surely forever deter humankind from using war to settle differences ever again.
I was born long after the Great War became known World War I. Since war didn’t end with it.
In my school history books, WWI was already just a few pages between other events of long ago. Even my parents, who were born right before and during WWI, had only the most fleeting memories of the war.
Sweden was neutral during WWI and saw no combat. So how did WWI make itself remembered in a small town in Southern Sweden decades later?
Because of Anton Olsson. Anton and his wife Alma lived on the street I grew up on. Anton was long retired. He’d had his own business, grinding and etching patterns into crystal and glass. Very fine and delicate creations. Still have a few samples of his work. The old business sign was still there on his outbuilding. But he was long retired. Spent the days gardening and watching over his honey bees.
All very intriguing for a kid. Add to that his war experience. Not talking about World War II. My dad was in the Swedish military throughout WWII.
No, Olsson fought in the Great War. Being an adventuresome young man (20-something) when the war raged on the European continent, he wanted in on it. Sweden was neutral, so he did the logical thing: Emigrated to Canada and joined up.
I wish I’d found out more about his war experience. Like when and where and what kind of action he actually saw. And why he chose to leave the safety of Sweden to cross the Atlantic so he could volunteer to fight in the bloodiest war anyone had ever seen.
All I know for sure is that he went to Canada and there volunteered to go fight in the Great War.
Obviously he made it through alive, without being maimed, and eventually found his way back to Sweden.
But somehow knowing he was in the war, makes reading the historical accounts more real, more personal for me. A reminder that those were real people. Who lived, breathed, and for all too many, died on the battle field.
As I write this, it’s 11/11/2018. Exactly 100 years since Armistice Day. The day the shooting stopped and the war ended.
The world was completely different from 4+ years earlier when it all started. Everyone’s take on it then was that it would all be over by Christmas. Off to war, victory and back home. Life goes on.
Except it didn’t.
The scars are still with us.
Verdun, France, was the location of one of the biggest and bloodiest battles on the Western Front in WWI. After the war was over, the area where all the fighting happened, crisscrossed by trenches and fortifications, was so shot up and destroyed, that it was assumed it would never again be fit for human use and agriculture. Trees were planted and nature allowed to slowly reclaim the area.
100 years later, the ground is still pockmarked with shell craters. The trenches are still there. So are crumbling bunkers and other fortifications.
Each year, tons of unexploded artillery shells are dug up out of ground, rivers and lakes in the area. Someone estimated that possibly as many as 1 in 4 shells didn’t explode on impact.
I’ve never made it to the battlefield at Verdun. I have visited Gettysburg, the site of a battle that raged for a few days and that didn’t materially alter the lasting shape of the landscape.
Just outside the town where I grew up in Sweden is the site of a major battle between Swedes and Danes in 1677. A battle that lasted a couple of days. Today, only a monument raised much later serves as a reminder of the bloody battle on that ground. Occasionally farmers finds uniform buttons or small metal objects, like a dagger or part of a gun, that have been buried below this farmland for several centuries.
The battle at Verdun went on for years, more or less heatedly. Everything there was blown up, over and under so many times, it’s no wonder it was deemed impossible to turn it back into anything useful when the shooting finally stopped.
But the scars left by WWI go much deeper.
The Great War changed us. It was so horrifying and so huge that it affected the whole view of life and meaning thereof (or lack of) for many. There was suddenly nothing truly enduring if the world might be blown up in an instance.
Others latched on to conspiracy theories, like the “stab-in-the-back” — the idea that Germany didn’t lose the war at the front, but was stabbed in the back by the civilian government and forced into a crushing peace. This theory started as a way to shift blame away from those who led the disastrous military campaigns. It soon became the justification for the Nazis and paved the way for WWII.
As we commemorate the end of the hostilities 100 years ago, the question we have ask is: How did a political assassination turn into a World War? I wager that was far beyond what Gavrilo Princip had in mind when he took the momentary opportunity to shoot and kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.
But once those shots were fired, one thing led to another, and another and another. Continually escalating what should have been handled as a significant, but nevertheless regional terrorist attack.
On a personal level, that’s a powerful reminder that we can set in motion events that we will have no way whatsoever to control or stop once we’ve done the initial setting in motion. A world war may result or it may be a friendship or marriage torn up over “irreconcilable differences”. Ones that may not have been so totally irreconcilable even at the stage when escalation happened.
But words (and actions) have power. When life become us vs. them. Me against the other person. We may hide it behind “it’s just business” or “that’s the way things are”.
To be sure, things were tense politically between a number of countries in Europe prior to the Great War. Nations saw themselves as better than their neighbors and certainly much more important. Our needs must be met, even if it’s at the expense of our neighbors. And there was tension from the world changing rapidly, both economically and socially.
There were those who wanted to keep things the way they used to be at all cost. And there were those who wanted to change things into a new world order at all cost. Along with any position in-between.
I’d like to think that the great tragedy that was WWI could have been avoided, if clearer heads had prevailed. If the focus from so many people hadn’t been on being stubborn and escalating the rhetoric. Reconciliation in relationships, between nations and between people, is possible as long as we’re alive.
Then again, the view when it all started, was that this will never get really bad. Just a quick campaign. Teach “the other guys” a lesson, make a victory and we’ll be home by Christmas. 5-6 months at the tops.
No one’s plans anticipated 4 years of stalemate in trenches. Just like we don’t anticipate lasting fallout from a few harsh words. But it happens.
No one expected that 4+ years of shooting and blowing up would so destroy the land that even 100 years later, the scars are still there. Overgrown, but there.
Just like it takes a minute or two to say or do something that breaks trust and breaks a relationship. But years and maybe decades to rebuild that trust and relationship, if ever.
The lasting lesson from the overgrown battlefield at Verdun and from the remembrance of Armistice Day is that it’s far easier to tear apart than it is to put things back together.
That’s a lesson we must never forget.