Living History: The end of WWI

“The human heart is the starting point of all matters pertaining to war." -Marechal de Saxe, 1732-

In “The Guns of August” (1962), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman quotes Bismarck’s prediction that “…some damned foolish thing in the Balkans…” would start the next war. Bismarck was right, but he likely had limited understanding of how gargantuan the conflict would be.

On the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” in 1918, the “war to end all wars” finally ceased with an armistice among the weary parties. WWI had started with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, and raged on for more than four bloody years, producing millions of deaths. Unlike most previous wars, individual battle casualties were measured not in the hundreds, but the hundreds of thousands. New terms like “trench warfare” and “no man's land” entered the vernacular.

After horrendous losses on all sides, the Central Powers led by Germany were ready to surrender and halt the hostilities. Yet the Treaty of Versailles which later formally ended the conflict was almost immediately ridiculed as a flawed document, one that could set the stage for a future war. Within 20 years, a maelstrom of even greater proportions changed the map of Europe- and much of the world.

The Signing of Peace_ n the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles 1919 by William Orpen

Although fighting had stopped in November 1918, negotiations among the Allied and Central Powers continued on for several months. The Treaty of Versailles was largely crafted by leaders from four nations: Woodrow Wilson in the U.S., David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France and Vittorio Orlando of Italy. Feelings against Germany and the Central Powers were still strong. France had lost 1.3 million soldiers, much of its countryside and industrial capacity destroyed. Men like Clemenceau wanted to ‘teach Germany a lesson’ and weaken that country economically and militarily. Although German representatives initially refused to sign the treaty due to perceived harsh conditions, they backed down when the Allied Powers threatened to invade their nation.

The Treaty of Versailles included many provisions that limited Germany’s potential to re-arm and start a future conflict. The country was forced to relinquish control of 25,000 square miles of landholding seven million people, as well as being limited to an army of no more than 100,000 men. The Rhineland was to be demilitarized, fortifications destroyed. These along with other restrictions caused deep consternation among German politicians and even some disagreements among the Allies.

Prominent British economist John Maynard Keynes (a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference) felt the treaty was too stringent and might be counterproductive. President Wilson had idealized expectations, his Fourteen Points outlining peaceful coexistence among former belligerents. Yet the delicate balance of power in Europe — a region plagued by wars for centuries — was never reestablished despite good intentions of the participants. Europe- at the hands of Germany- again became a battleground, ravaged two decades later with Adolf Hitler’s aggressions. The lessons- and mistakes- of Versailles are still being debated among historians today.

Although the last American soldier who fought in that war passed from the scene several years ago, the memories of the thousands of families touched by the conflict remain vivid. According to the United States World War I Centennial Commission, 297,000 Keystone state residents served in the war, with 10,278 combat deaths. Chester County had many willing to serve, including Archie Aitkens of Coatesville, Howard J. Becker of Kennett Square, Charles J. Adams of West Chester and Lewis Dadley of New Garden.

Some of the men from this conflict are buried in far-away fields, mostly in France, where they fought so bravely. More than 53,000 Americans died in the war, which many at the time called “the Great War.” Memorials honoring soldiers from Pennsylvania stand to this day in Varennes and Nantillois, France and are visited by their descendants every year. Though these monuments are thousands of miles from us, the courage and bravery of these men will never be forgotten. To all who served in this war- and all other American wars- we say an affectionate “Thank you.”

 

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About Gene Pisasale

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pa. His eight books and historic lecture series focus on the history of the mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s latest book is Alexander Hamilton: Architect of the American Financial System, which delves into the life and many accomplishments of this important Founding Father who almost single-handedly transformed our nation from a bankrupt entity into the most successful country in the history of mankind. Gene’s books are available on www.Amazon.com. His website is www.GenePisasale.com; he can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com.

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