Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Coming World War I Anniversaries

The year 1914, a hundred years ago, started optimistically. A new nation, Nigeria, was formed by the merging of two British colonies, one Muslim and one Christian (the Northern and Southern Protectorates respectively). The first passenger flight ever took place on New Years Day. Also, early that year Ford Motor company announced the eight hour workday and minimum wage while women suffragettes were marching toward the vote. This would be the year that Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth made their debuts. The first blood transfusion took place. If not for the assassin's bullet that struck Austrian prince, Franz Ferdinand, on June 28th, the 20th century might have been quite peaceful. Sure, there was bickering, a ten year revolution was brewing in Mexico, but the world had not seen a war that they'd refer at as a World War yet. It would change everything.

With the 100 year anniversary of the assassination coming up this year, I feel woefully unprepared for it. I know so little about this war. I don't want to feel like one of those people that Jay Leno interviews on the streets of LA that don't know shit about anything. I have to double check who was at war with whom in this war. I know so much more about the sequel. Perhaps it is because WW II is more recent and even bloodier or because I know people who were in WW II, like my dad, or that there are a lot more Hollywood movies about it ... probably a combination of them all.  Regardless, I need to learn more.

June 28th marks the date that the assassination happen which was followed by a bunch of bad decisions based on bad information fueled by bravado and a bunch of poorly designed treaties. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia, then Germany declares war on France, Germany on France, Germany on Belgium, the UK on Germany ... yada yada yada. With the UK getting involved, at the time being the largest empire ever in the history of the world, this makes it huge almost immediately. By the time the US gets involved in 1917, the war had spread to every continent (sans Antarctica).

The question for the Americans is what side to join if join they must. England was a long time enemy while Germany had little military contact with us. Both countries owed the US so much money that it was a loss either way. The current tension between the US and England were due to English persistence over the border of Venezuela and Guyana. We may have joined the Central powers along with Germany if Germany hadn't made two mistakes: (1) they declared they would sink any neutral ships anywhere on the globe and then proceeded to do so, (2) and they sent an infamous telegram to Mexico, the Zimmerman telegram, urging them to join the Central Powers against the US to get back the land that the we stole (aka Texas). When the RMS Lusitania, an ocean liner carrying English munitions in its secret compartment, was sunk by a Germany U-boat on May 7 1915 killing over 100 American citizens, public opinion started turning against Germany and toward the UK. In my faulty memory, I always think of the sinking of Lusitania as the Pearl Harbor of the first World War, but of course, this is not correct because it took the US another year and a half to declare war against Germany. Public opinion certainly swayed against Germany but the US citizenry was still very much isolationist.

In March 1916, Germany did it again. They sunk the SS Sussex, an unarmed French passenger ferry in the English Channel. President Wilson threatened to cut off all diplomatic contact if this continued so Germany agreed to stop sinking non-military crafts. The agreement came to be known as the "Sussex Pledge" forged in May. By January of the next year Germany had decided to break the pledge believing that by continuing unrestricted submarine activity it would end the war in five months. They believed by time the US got into the war, Germany would be victorious. News travelled slowly. By February this brought Wilson to Congress just to inform them that he severed diplomatic ties with Germany. Throughout February and March, German continued to sink American ships. It wasn't until the Zimmerman telegram that the US declared war. If you are looking for a Pearl Harbor type of event, the telegram was it, not the Lusitania. But there really isn't one. America's greatest contribution to the war was man power. By the summer of 1918, an average of 10,000 US service men were landing in France everyday. This was enough to tip the war toward England.

Science fiction fans often talk about going back in time and changing history at key moments in time. One favorite is preventing the assassination of Kennedy, another is killing Hitler while he was a boy or preventing his birth. For the most impact, the logical choice would be preventing the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and hopefully preventing the war. Most of the 20th century problems seem to have started from this war. The biggest and most obvious problem it caused is the next World War. England and France were incredibly unfair to  Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, making recovery from the war difficult and creating an environment where radical movements like Nazi could thrive. It was stripped of its military, its monarchy, its flag, its international rights and its dignity. Its economy was also in shambles. Luckily, we learned from this mistake when WW II ended, the Marshal Plan was less punitive and Germany is the amazing nation it is today because of it.

There are less obvious problems caused by WW I. Some were inevitable, like the mechanization of war. This was the first war that planes, submarines and tanks were used. All wars from here on end would be mechanical. The cavalry was done. Some of the other problems are less obvious. The devastation of the war caused the fall of the house of Romanov in Russia giving the Bolsheviks power over the czars.  They eventually became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. If not for the WW I, the cold war might never have happened. Also, the war was financially costly even for the victors. European countries could no longer afford to maintain their empires. Colonialism around the world began to collapse with independent nations sprouting up for the next 50 years. The sun was setting on the British Empire. This was good for many reasons but this meant a lot of change and instability happening all over the world. New nations formed like India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines among many others. Perhaps the biggest collapse was the Ottoman Empire in 1922. It may have been able to maintain its cohesion if it wasn't so busy with the Middle Eastern front of WW I. It had been shrinking for the past four hundred years, WW I was its death toll with Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq forming from its ashes.

This is what I have learned from just poking around on the net. Now I feel more prepared when those 100th anniversaries start popping up.

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