My Grandfathers’ War


WWIOne hundred years ago World War I began, a war that started as a clash in a tiny, almost unknown Balkan state and blossomed into a violent, gruesome war that spread across Europe, the Middle East and reached into Africa and Asia. Within a few years, tens of millions would be dead, the political face of the world changed and almost all of the great royal houses of Europe would be deposed and broken. An entire culture, a society of class and place, was overthrown.

The timeline of the origins of WWI is complex and, from this century of temporal distance, confusing and obscure. As Keven Drews wrote in the National Post,

It’s been 100 years since Europe’s major powers, and their colonies and dominions, went to war, but the passage of time has done little to settle the debate about who or what was responsible for the First World War.

Prof. Michael Neiberg of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said some blame those who held political power at the time, and their divergent systems of government, while others insist it’s difficult to assign blame at the feet of any one culprit.

“If anybody goes looking for simple causes, they’re going to either be disappointed or they’re going to reduce the history so much that it won’t make sense anymore — 1914 was an unbelievably complicated world,” said Neiberg.

It began on June 28 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, in Sarajevo. That event – for political reasons few of us today know about or understand – was followed by a month of drum beating, armies mobilizing and nationalism being tightened to a high pitch throughout Europe. Alliances solidified between the powers. Tens of thousands of men enlisted in a nationalistic fervor.

War seemed glorious, exciting, patriotic.

A steamroller of events followed that shooting. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and on August 2, Germany invaded Luxembourg. On August 3, it declared war on France. A day later, the UK declared war on Germany, while the USA would stubbornly declare its neutrality (not declaring war on Germany until April, 1917 and on Austria-Hungary in December, 1917).

My grandfathers would both enlist in that hot blush of youthful patriotic passion; my mother’s father serving in Canada’s fledgling navy and my father’s father in the King’s Royal Rifles. Unlike so many of their friends and companions, they would survive, although not necessarily unscathed – the emotional impact must have been enormous.

The whole world changed in those few short years. A new world emerged, one we recognize as our early modern culture, but one that shed the skins of so many social structures that were left in the mud of the trenches.

Some say that was good; that what emerged was a better, stronger and more vibrant world. Colonialism and class were on the wane. Individualism, feminism, workers’ rights and a more open society were on the rise. So some good emerged from the rubble. But along the way, we gained terrorism, fascism, military dictatorships, communism, and a mannerless, self-centred culture.

While I ponder the events and politics that led the world into such a devastating conflict, a century ago on this anniversary, I look around my own world and wonder if 2014 isn’t an uncanny shadow of 1914. The splintered world – Balkanized – the separatist movements, the heightened, aggressively militaristic nationalism in states like Russia. The impending plutorcratic theocracy in the USA.

I read about the madness and violence and anger in places like Ukraine, Gaza, Nigeria. I read about fanatic, violent and brutal groups like Boko Haram, Al Queda, ISIS, HAMAS and the pro-Russian (and Russian-backed, armed and funded) terrorists who are trying to destroy Ukraine. I read about their clearly psychotic leaders who condone and encourage violence.

It seems eerily like the events that led to world conflict, a century ago. But scarier. Conflict is always driven by ideology, but today the ideologies are more extreme, more violent.

These extreme and radical ideologies are not confined to terrorist groups like ISIS. They are political mainstream in modern Europe – where elections this summer saw the rise of virulently racist, anti-semitic tight-wing parties – and the USA – where the Tea Party offers a bone-chilling future for anyone who isn’t white, rich or a corporation.

At times like these, I am thankful I am too old for military service. I do not envy anyone in the military who would have to fight the likes of ISIS or the Taliban. We joke about the zombie apocalypse, but these Islamic fundamentalists and Russian gangs are many, many times more frightening and much less humane and compassionate than any mindless zombie could be.

I am also thankful was born in a relatively sane, quiet nation, a reasonably calm, well-off land, but one which will I doubt could remain untouched if the spark of this madness lights the tinder of competing ideologies.

I wonder if my grandfathers looked about them, in 1914, and felt the same; worried about their families, their lives, their future if the world sparked into conflagration. Or did they see the impending conflict – as many did – as a glorious romp; a chance to get some Victorian-era-style honour. I’ll never knew. Both men are long since passed.

From this great distance, I can only add another bit of thankfulness: that they survived the madness of World War One so that, two generations later in a vastly changed world, I could ponder these things.