Today, the world marks 100 years since the beginning of its first universal war. World War I began on July 28, 1914, after the invasion of Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Due to my family history, WWI does hold some particular interest for me, but I don’t know a great deal about it. Seeing as 2014 is the centenary, I am trying to learn more about this tremendous war starting today. This post outlines my knowledge and observations of the war, and how it has affected me personally.
I have Welsh heritage, and one of my Welsh ancestors fought in WWI. He was killed at the Battle of the Somme in France, and his death has given me a personal reason to appreciate and contemplate the terrible and enormous cost of the Great War.
Wounded men of the British Army after fighting on Bazentin Ridge. Image #Q800 from the Imperial War Museum via Wikimedia Commons
Growing up, I was always aware of stories of WWI; for example, I knew of Vimy Ridge and the fact that Canadian troops featured largely in the battle there. One of my first introductions to the actual conditions of the war came upon my first visit to the Imperial War Museum in London, where I visited the WWI Trench Experience. More about the Trench Experience can be read in my IWM London post here.
The Second World War is my foremost military interest, so (unfortunately) on vacations and museum trips I tend to pay minimal attention to WWI stuff. However, when I traveled to the UK in 2011, one particular and unexpected WWI object caught my attention and had quite an effect on me. It was at Stokesay Castle in the western county of Shropshire, which was accessed through a churchyard. While walking through the churchyard, I was looking at all the surrounding gravestones, and noticed one which commemorated two brothers who had died while in France.
This grave made me stop and take a closer look
It was these strangely emotionless, matter-of-fact words that made me so sad
It wasn’t as if I had never seen war graves before, but this one made me especially emotional. Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting to see such a grave, or because it contained the remains of a family broken by war. I often think of that grave.
The churchyard at Stokesay. It’s likely- and tragic- that every tiny English churchyard holds at least one or two graves from WWI.
Something which I feel is very evocative of WWI’s hugely scaled terror is the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a soldier in the Manchester Regiment, and he died in France one week before the Armistice. But he was also a poet, and he wrote vivid accounts of the suffering, chaos, and senselessness which he saw everyday. His poems were very different from the prevailing contemporary tendency to glorify and romanticize war, and thus give a more realistic and personal look at WWI. I would really encourage you to read some of his work- particularly Anthem for Doomed Youth and Dulce et Decorum Est.
Wilfred Owen’s grave in France (centre). Image from Wikimedia Commons, CC-SA 3.0. Attributed to Hektor
When I think about WWI, I see a world that had no idea of the horror it was capable of creating. The naivety and excitement of the men going off to war in 1914 was soon shattered by machineguns and choked by mustard gas. It’s heartbreaking that World War I had such a cost, especially since it was fought to satisfy imperialistic greed and because its conclusion laid the foundation for the next World War twenty years later. However, I believe that its 9 million dead should be remembered and honoured regardless of the perhaps unfortunate and misguided causes of their leaders. I hope that 2014 and every year after will provide us with new reasons to commemorate something which we- although we have failed in this before- must strive to never repeat again.