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The Great War’s Great Failure

This Sunday will mark, Father Raymond de Souza writes, 100 years since the guns fell silent to stop the catastrophe of mud and futility that was the First World War. It was the end, too, of Europe’s game of thrones and the fall of Christendom’s altars.

4 minute read
The Great War’s Great Failure November 8, 2018  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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The armistice finally came with a nod to poetry after the ugliness of so brutal a war: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The papers had been signed before dawn that morning, in that famous railway carriage north of Paris, at five o’clock. And between the signing of the armistice and its coming into effect six hours later, some 11,000 casualties were suffered, including some 2,700 deaths. American Sgt. Henry Gunther was killed at 10:59 by Germans frantically trying to wave him off his advance, shouting in broken English that the war was over. He was killed at the literal last minute.

Afterwards there would inquiries and official investigations attempting to answer the anguished letters of the beloved of those last to die. Why the pointless fighting in those last hours? There were more casualties on Armistice Day 1918 than there were on D-Day 1944.

The last hours were an excruciatingly fitting conclusion to the four years of slaughter, a final exclamation point plunged like a dagger into those last few thousand beating hearts. For the question about the dead of 11-11-18 was the question which had haunted the entirety of the “war to end all wars.” Why? Why did it begin? And why, having begun as a confection of folly, were the great men of Europe unable to stop it, even at tenth hour and fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh day of the eleventh month?

The war to end all wars did not even end after the armistice was signed that dark French morning. And in the folly of that armistice the seeds of a greater war were planted. The war to end all wars gave birth instead to decades of war, hot and cold, which brought more misery to more people that ever before imagined. 

One hundred years later, exactly one minute after the precise centennial of Sgt. Gunther being shot in the head, we will fall silent this Remembrance Day to remember him and countless others. And we will thus mark the end of the war that ended so much. 

The war marked the end of four great empires – the Habsburg emperor, the Russian tsar, the German kaiser and the Ottoman sultan all fell. The last led to the Middle East being carved up by Britain and France, producing the failed states and fake monarchies and fierce regimes that have produced a miserable century for the Arab peoples. 

The Great War ended the old European order. To be sure, since the French Revolution of 1789 that order had been much under attack and laid in tatters in many places. The altar-and-throne arrangements that had arisen centuries earlier were gone in France and Italy, and were weak in Germany. The First World War finished off the thrones, as it were.

Much more important is what it did to the altar.

In theories of secularization, many long historical causes are considered as contributing to the widespread loss of faith. The rise of a scientific and technological culture. The division of western Christianity and subsequent wars of religion. The shifting economic patterns which moved societies from agrarian life to industrial urban life. The advance of new modes of communication. Increasing political liberties and the rise of more autonomous conceptions of the person. 

All of which have their role to play. But the effect of the Great War also must be considered. Great empires of explicitly Christian identity could not the prevent a slide into a war which, even a century later, seems a pointless slaughter. The imperial officials in London, Berlin, Vienna and Moscow could not prevent the war from coming and, even worse, were paralyzed to prevent it from continuing its brutal and bloody toll. Armistice Day 1918, so earnestly awaited and so ardently desired, was yet another day of pointless carnage, and the small-mindedness of the armistice negotiations set the stage for the even more horrific world war twenty years later. 

(Hitler insisted that the French surrender of 1940 be signed in the same railway carriage where the 11th November 1918 armistice was signed. Four years later he ordered the carriage blown up, fearing that the Allies would use it again for the German surrender in 1945.)

Hillaire Belloc wrote in his history of Christendom, “The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.”

The Great War was Europe’s greatest civilizational failure, a kind of mass civilizational suicide. The Second World War would claim more lives, but had clearer issues at stake, including noble causes to be defended and wicked causes to be opposed. But any culture, any political system, any diplomatic apparatus that could give rise to a catastrophe on the scale of the Great War lost its credibility. It was no longer possible to have faith in Europe after Europe had massacred itself. And if Belloc was right, even in part, that the Europe was the Faith, then the fall of Europe meant the fall of the Faith.

We easily look to the social upheavals of the 1960s and date the decline of faith in our common life to that period. But already in the late 19th century the trends were in place, and after the First World War, began to accelerate rapidly. The afterburn of Christendom was prolonged. But the Great War was a failure so great – a failure of state, of church, of culture, of economics, of civilization – that credibility could not be regained. The anti-institutional and anti-authority ethos we associate with the 1960s had its deepest roots a half century earlier. 

So we remember this coming Sunday, as is fitting and just. We choose to remember the nobility and sacrifice that marked the Great War, which is also fitting and just. But we remember too that the Great War was a great failure, perhaps the greatest in all of history. And we live still with the consequences. 


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