The approach of the Ides of August stirred up a thought of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, an excellent and readable history of the opening month of the Great War. It was a best seller in 1962. One of the readers was JFK, and, just maybe, the lessons in it encouraged him to step back from the brink at the last minute during the October Missile Crisis of 1962; if so, Tuchman did us all a service. My mom was another one of her customers; the book is still on my shelf. I didn’t read it then (I was 9) but got around to it in time.
There were many underlying reasons for the powers of Europe to have been aligned against each other the way they were in1914. Had you asked European leaders in July of that year if any of those reasons was worth a general war, however, not one would have said yes. War came anyway in the first few days of August. The whole thing has the look of a colossal accident. One country after another was drawn in. From the beginning, the slaughter on every front was unexpectedly appalling. In the initial abortive Russian campaign in East Prussia the casualties of the Russians and Germans together totaled 190,000. In the failed German drive on Paris, the British, French, and Germans suffered half a million. Yet it was just the beginning.
That it was such a bloody beginning was the biggest obstacle to putting a stop to it. After such losses, the governments of all the combatant nations wanted something to show for them – certainly none wanted to cede anything. So the war continued year after year and the losses on all sides escalated, eventually by official count exceeding 9,700,000 killed and nearly 17,000,000 wounded (both figures surely are undercounts). Additionally, civilian deaths are reckoned at close to 7,000,000. President Wilson’s proposal in January 1917 for “peace without victory” (basically status quo ante) went nowhere; instead, the US soon joined the fighting. The Allies won their “victory” in November 1918, but there was more than a little justice to the sour joke common in the 1930s that the war had made the world “safe for fascism.”
The truth was that the victors were almost as shattered by the 1914-18 war as the losers. No one really won; there were just losers and bigger losers. Two of the combatants thought they had won, but they didn’t. Japan and the United States had relatively light losses (in the case of the US, a “mere” 117,000 killed), and were the only two nations to come out of the war stronger than they went into it. However, this bred in both an over-confidence (and pugnacity toward each other) that a little over two decades later would prove deadlier than either in 1918 could have imagined.
Since 1945 – probably thanks to nuclear deterrence rather than to greater wisdom – our wars have been limited affairs with far lower casualties. Still, they are just as hard on the people in the middle of them, and many seem to drag on forever. Historians often point to 1914 as a warning against stumbling into a conflict no one wants. Perhaps just as important, though, is the risk it demonstrates of using casualties (“to ensure they did not die in vain”) as the reason for extending a conflict that otherwise is ill-considered. Everyone, including the eventual “victors” would have been far better off in December 1914 to have called off the war as a bad job and gone home.
Tiny Tim’s 1968 rendition of Down Below, written by Irving Berlin in 1914