Brace yourself for August

I know most of my readers are Americans, and the United States media will not have much to say (other than to sound an occasional note of triumphalism), but if you’re at all informed about the world, you should be thinking about WWI this summer — it will be the centenary of the beginning of World War I on 3 August. That’s a really good long read, by the way, that summarizes the early events of the war and explains why Germany, France, Russia, and Great Britain still care about the bloody price they paid in that deadly wasteful war.

More than 60 million soldiers from five continents participated in that orgy of violence. Almost one in six men died, and millions returned home with injuries or missing body parts — noses, jaws, arms. Countries like France, Belgium and the United Kingdom are planning international memorial events, wreath-laying ceremonies, concerts and exhibits, as are faraway nations like New Zealand and Australia, which formed their identities during the war.

Sit down with your cup of tea or coffee and read the whole thing.


  1. says

    It’s so amazing that many wars end with things more or less right back where they started. As a problem-solving process it’s not only horribly expensive, it’s also very inefficient. The most amazing thing about war is that people still put up with it. Given the cleverness we’ve expended toward killing eachother, there is a shortage of equal cleverness expended toward making it less likely. One place to start would be to stop empowering people who see the world in terms where war is seen as a useful solution – why do we elect violent-minded people, instead of consensus builders? It’s as if our selection criteria for political success are inverted: we choose the people that are most likely to ruin peace and quiet.

  2. stevem says

    The OP title made me think this was a warning against the movie August: Osage County”. Not to shill, but seems to be an interesting film with many names, Streep and Roberts headlining. Why else would August be mentioned in January? <slinking back into corner>

  3. Paul K says

    As long as we keep the mindset that killing people is somehow different, even ‘honorable’, when we or they are soldiers, then we aren’t going to get very far. War almost never solves actual problems, or even settles conflicts. WWI was just one chapter, and when its issues were not resolved, another generation went to kill and die. There have been exceptions, maybe, but those exceptions are too often used as excuses for the next war, or the next dozen. Everything I’ve ever learned about World War I has left me with the question: what was the point? The article confirmed what I thought: hubris, machismo, greed, nationalism. It wasn’t about ideology, really, just national gain. And we still live with its consequences.

    And, with war in general, soldiers are trained to kill, not just on command, but under their own initiative, to achieve given goals. Then they go home, and are expected to be completely different; to let all that go. We live with that, too.

  4. says

    It’s as if our selection criteria for political success are inverted: we choose the people that are most likely to ruin peace and quiet.

    Perhaps because both the process to get elected and the process to get things legislated are combative and adversarial in our multiple party democracies? How many consensus builder types are turned off by the whole mess of political campaigning and partisan fighting that are so much a part of our politics? So the people who are attracted to it, or at least not totally repelled by it, are often aggressive, even violent, combative people. The choice to elect someone diplomatic, conciliatory, consensus focused is rare. And even when you do get such people elected, it’s hard to build consensus when all the other players involved are aggressive combatant types.

  5. thinkfree83 says

    I don’t understand why World War I doesn’t get more play in the US when 116, 516 of our troops were killed and 204, 002 were wounded. There were twice as many casualties in World War II, but we were in that conflict for three and a half years, whereas we were only in World War I for a year.

  6. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    I think, thinkfree, that much of it is that WWI is seen as being a war that was (to use a song popular at the time) over there. As in, not here. As in, it wasn’t “our” war. The damaging effects of WWI on Americans was largely limited to its effects on those who actually went over: the civilian population was all but untouched (except by proxy when it was their son/husband/father who failed to come home or who came home missing bits), and lots of money was made. Our cities weren’t bombed, we weren’t forced to become refugees. So on. The war was over there, and there we’ve left it.

    Also, there is a war that holds the sort of influence over people in the US that WWI holds over others: the Civil War.

  7. mnb0 says

    There are quite some inaccuracies in the article. Those who want to know more should look for the books of Barbara Tuchman – an American.

  8. says

    And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
    Do all those who lie here know why they died
    Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
    Did you really believe that this war would end wars
    Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
    The killing and dying it was all done in vain
    Oh Willy McBride it all happened again
    And again, and again, and again, and again

    That song I posted in the Lounge a few days ago is very appropriate here. (For those who missed it: In English and German, et en Français . See also The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and Christmas in the Trenches.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 1: … many wars end with things more or less right back where they started.

    Not WWI. Four dynasties fell, maps of Europe and the Middle East got redrawn, sociocultural attitudes shifted permanently, technology leaped: the 20th century took a course drastically different from its previous path.

  10. rnilsson says

    We had a record (LP, 12 inch) with Tom Lehrer where he introduced one song something like this:

    This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War I and the 20th anniversary of the end of World War II. So, all in all, it’s been a good year for the war buffs.

    I think that song was MLF Lullaby.

    Once all the Germans were war-like and mean
    but that couldn’t happen again.
    We taught them a lesson in 1918,
    and they’ve hardly bothered us since then.

    And that was 50 years ago. Plus ca change, eh?

  11. says


    I don’t understand why World War I doesn’t get more play in the US

    Over there, over there…

    It wasn’t really considered to be an American war. I had a great grandfather who fought in the great war (that’s what he called it), but for all that, he considered it to be a foreign conflict, at a remove from America and American concerns.

  12. Moggie says

    I wonder whether the century would have played out differently if America had been more engaged in WWI…

  13. Goodbye Enemy Janine says

    mnb0. Since the fall of the USSR and the release of thousands of documents that the USSR stole from central and eastern Europe in the aftermath of WWII, there has been a lot of revision of the Great War narrative. Barbara Tuchman’s account is outdated.

    One is much better served reading The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark and July 1914 by Sean McMeekin. Both goes to great length to show how the bumbling of dozens of men throughout five empires brought about the bloodshed. And there is none of the “It is Germany’s fault alone” that taints Tuchman’s account. Both Austria-Hungary (Well, the Austrian part.) and Russia were gearing for war in the Balkans (The last thing Franz Ferdinand wanted.). And France was active in pushing Russia towards war while deceiving the Germans and Austrians. And the Kaiser’s “Blank Check” gave the Austrian the reassurance they desired in their war again Serbia.

    Also, please point out just what was inaccurate in that article?

  14. Holms says

    …New Zealand and Australia, which formed their identities during the war.

    I am so over this sentiment. No nation requires war to take pride in itself, no one need die before they can call themselves a patriot.

    It’s as if our selection criteria for political success are inverted: we choose the people that are most likely to ruin peace and quiet.

    I suspect this stems from the basic fact that power has a tendency to end up in the hands of the power-hungry.

  15. playonwords says

    @ Holms #16

    The war was not the method by which NZ and Australian identity became more firmly established but it did provide the opportunity. Before WWI the wars of the British Empire were fought largely by the small, but highly effective, professional army of Britain assisted by volunteer units from the colonies and Indian professionals. During WWI it became obvious that Britain needed its colonies more than the colonies needed Britain.

  16. thinkfree83 says

    From what I understand, the WWI war effort lead to major changes in the lives of ordinary Americans; young men were drafted, black men went overseas for the first time and saw life outside of the confines of Jim Crow, women worked in munitions factories, metal, rubber, and other goods were rationed, etc. In comparison, few people’s lives were altered by the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no “war effort,” unless you count the heroic fight to change “French fries” into “freedom fries.” The generation that fought and died in WWI is gone, and they never had a Tom Brokaw to pronounce them “the Greatest Generation” or some other high-faluting title. Maybe to the Baby Boomers who control the media, the generation of WWI were simply the grandparents who weren’t “great enough” to stop the rise of Hitler.

  17. Tetrarch says

    #10 Dalillama, I love those last two songs you mentioned. To hear Eric Bogle sing the first one guarantees tears.

    I am just finishing The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally about two Australian sisters, nurses in WWI, at Gallipoli and in France. Wonderful characters in the cauldron that brewed the 20th century..

  18. says

    World War I is notable as the first “total war”, as Gwynne Dyer called it. It was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week war for the first time (i.e. PTSD became rampant, not isolated). Chemical weapons were first used on a large scale, leading to massive use later. The new media (radio, photography, telephone) made everyone in the world witness to it as it happened, it was no longer a distant thing or a regional conflict talked about by soldiers after it was over. All of that should have been a wake up call to the folly of war and its devastating effects, but instead became porn and some wanted more of it.

    In 1995, many countries and media were glorifying World War II on the fiftieth anniversary of that war’s end. It sounds like they’re doing the same thing again. The play and film, “Oh! What A Lovely War!” is a comment on the propaganda of war in World War I. It might be worth dusting off and watching again, along with “All Quiet On The Western Front”.!_What_a_Lovely_War


    Marcus Ranum (#1) –

    It’s so amazing that many wars end with things more or less right back where they started. As a problem-solving process it’s not only horribly expensive, it’s also very inefficient.

    Legal systems, for the most part, hold people accountable for their actions. When countries behave criminally, especially large and powerful ones or those protected by larger allies (e.g. China protecting North Korea, the US protecting Israel), it’s hard to make those countries and leaders accountable.

    Some countries resort to war (*) because they see no other way to get “justice”, or there is no other way to get it (e.g. Iran and the US after the Shah’s overthrow). Sanctions don’t work because large countries have enough money and influence not to feel it, and dictators in small countries don’t care if the populace starve.

    (* Terrorism is how the poor wage war. War is how the rich wage terrorism.)

  19. chuckonpiggott says

    Mnb0 at 9. I agree about The Tuchman books. “The Proud Tower” gives a good picture of fin de siècle Europe and the lead up. “The Guns of August” is simply great.

  20. Crudely Wrott says

    Doog dog, ya’ll!
    What is it good for?

    Well, it does increase the quotients of anger, angst, anguish, and, er, boredom. States of mind that seem to wax more popular in direct proportion to how many Department of Defense troops are deployed beyond our borders.

    While it is near maximally cautionary and instructive in terms of what is lost versus what is gained it remains an enigma in that it is fatally tedious.

    Some people, chiefly those whose families were not incinerated or reduced to atoms or simply punctured by projectiles choose to simply ignore it. Unless one of their sons or daughters or mothers or fathers or a friend of a cousin’s auto mechanic had some role to play in some war, some people seem to think that it’s like trends in pop music, trusting that the latest anti-phonic dysfunction will pass and peace, if not harmony and melodious harmonics will soon return. Perhaps they expect Bing Crosby or Burl Ives to be resurrected and make things OK?

    Really. Can you picture Crosby and Ives bandoleered and water boarding George the Younger? Leeringly? Making America safe again? You can?

    Funny. I can’t. (and I grew up with these guys in my audio background. Thanks, Ma!)

    If it weren’t so tragic
    It would be the ultimate bore.
    It is already the ultimate boor.

  21. lpetrich says

    WWI toppled four big monarchies, those of Germany, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, but with a big break from tradition. Most of their successors choose not to create new monarchies, but instead, republics. Of the Central Powers, only Bulgaria’s monarchy survived. Of the new nations that emerged, the only ones to get monarchies were the ones ruled by Britain in the Middle East and North Africa: Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. All the rest got republics.

    President Woodrow Wilson demanded and got the German Kaiser’s abdication, the Austrian Kaiser fled, the Russian Tsar abdicated as a result of the war effort doing very badly, and a little after the war, the Ottoman Pasha was overthrown by “Young Turk” nationalists because he had given away too much.

    For at least 5000 years, monarchy has been the most common form of government for any nation larger than a city-state. Some monarchies have been very long-lived, even if not very continuous, with the champions likely being the Pharaonic Egyptian and the Chinese monarchies. The largest republic was likely the Roman Republic in its last years, but that republic was then suffering from strife and civil wars, and it famously became a monarchy, the Roman Empire.

    One has to credit the US Founding Fathers with being willing to start a daring experiment: to create a republic as large as the Roman Republic in its last years. Fortunately, their experiment succeeded, though it nearly split in two nearly a century later. The French Revolution, however, was a bad advertisement for republicanism, and until World War I, most European nation-builders wanted monarchs for their new nations, even monarchs from other nations’ royal families.

    The victors’ monarchies survived, however, but some of them were deposed in later years. The remaining ones are mostly figurehead monarchs, like the UK’s.

    Elsewhere in the world, monarchies also fell, like those of China and Korea, and more recently, those of Egypt and Libya and Iraq and Nepal. The only restorations over the last century have been in Spain and Cambodia.

    But some places have more-or-less created new monarchies or tried to. Syria’s leader is the son of its previous leader, and North Korea is on its third generation of god-kings. Some “godless” Communists! But Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khadafy were less successful in getting succeeded by their sons.

  22. tiphphin says

    I was always led to believe that the memory of so many deaths and injuries is the main reason that Europe has worked very hard on peace since WW1 and WW2. European citizens decided the devastation wrought to whole communities and families really wasn’t worth it, so the demand for peace came from the general populous.

    Does anybody know if peace in the Middle East can be achieved without such a horrendous waste of human life? Can peace be achieved through education alone?

  23. zenlike says

    If there is one lesson to be had from the first world war, it is that nationalism and patriotism can lead to a cluster-fuck costing millions of lives. Unfortunately, these types of sentiment have gained a lot of traction again over the last decades. It would be interesting to see how these right-wing political parties will react to the celebrations.

    As Angus Brooks above pointed out, some have already begun to try to rewrite history.

    In his essay for the Daily Mail, the [UK] education secretary argues that the 1914 centenary of the outbreak of the first world war should be about “battling leftwing myths that belittle Britain” and denounces historians who “denigrate patriotism”. He doesn’t quite say that in sensible countries that treat patriotism as a duty, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton would be taken to the woods, forced to dig their own graves and shot for writing Blackadder, but he’s not far off. In his piece, Gove criticises historians and TV programmes that denigrate patriotism and courage by depicting the war as a “misbegotten shambles”.

  24. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    left0ver1under @21:

    World War I is notable as the first “total war”, as Gwynne Dyer called it. It was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week war for the first time (i.e. PTSD became rampant, not isolated).

    Point of fact, the US Civil War was a “total war.” It also (at Petersburg and Vicksburg) saw trench fighting.

    In addition to the whole over here vs over there thing, part of the reason why the US remains still so fixated on the Civil War while being remarkably “meh” about WWI is because of the above.

    When the AEI arrived, Pershing et al were determined to not get bogged down in the trenches and repeat the things that the British and French had done. Part of that was due to them sitting on the sidelines taking notes for the past few years. Part of that was because a decent number of the officer corps in 1918 had been taught infantry tactics from the survivors of Gettysburg and Antietam.

  25. chrislawson says

    Holms @16:

    I am so over this sentiment. No nation requires war to take pride in itself, no one need die before they can call themselves a patriot.

    The identity that the Anzacs took out of WW1 wasn’t “we fought a war and won, we’re so great” but “those effin’ British commanders sent us colonials in to be slaughtered by stupid, pointless tactics.” Of the British troops fielded, 50% became casualties (that’s missing, wounded, or killed). The New Zealand troops had a 60% casualty rate and the Australians had a 65% casualty rate. It wasn’t the start of nationalistic military pride, it was the start of distancing ourselves from the old Empire.

    (And the poor Austro-Hungarian troops had an extraordinary 90% casualty rate. No wonder their empire collapsed.)

  26. don1 says

    There is a small town near where I live which during WWI contained about 200 households. The post office has a plaque commemerating the morning during which over 60 telegrams were delivered. Apparently, once delivery was underway mothers stood on their doorsteps watching to see who would be visited next. It is said that the telegraph boy was weeping as he informed almost a third of his neighbours that they had lost a loved one.

    The custom of having very local military units led to ‘chums’ brigades where soldiers from the same locale served together. It was considered good for group cohesion. This in turn led to villages or small towns losing an entire generation of young men in literally minutes. The custom was changed subsequently as this was apparently bad for morale.

  27. Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive] says

    The monument at Gallipoli talks about the “Mehmets and Johnnies” that met there.

    Needless to say, “Mehmet” and “Johnnie” were on opposite sides of the battle. But what united them – what the monument speaks of when it says there is “no difference” between them and says that “your sons … have become our sons” – is that they were cannon fodder tossed away by upper-class officers miles away. If there was any takeaway message of WWI, it was that the foot soldier learned that lesson. In many, many cases it was formative and shaped the destiny of the nations the survivors went home to.

  28. don1 says


    You are absolutely right that upper-class commanders saw troops as cannon-fodder but I have heard it suggested that the reason that the UK didn’t face a revolution or the collapse of the monarchy after the war, as other countries did, was that the casualty rate among upper-class young officers was as high or higher than that of the troops they commanded.

  29. chrislawson says

    left0ver1under @21:

    Total War was first used as a term in 1935 according to the infallible Wikipedia, but the practice goes back way before WW1 — the Wikipedia entry harks back to the Mongol Empire, but I’d argue that Rome was forced to wage total war to defeat Hannibal in the Second Punic War. There are probably even earlier examples.

  30. chrisreynolds says

    Any Blackadder fans out there should check out this recent article from The Guardian about Michale Gove’s attempts to have WW1 generals and powers that be seen in a more positive light.

    There is a good reason – If we talk openly and honestly about the horrific consequences of the past we cannot but be aware of the failings of past leaders. And last thing the bumblingly incompetent Michael Gove wants is for us to wonder whether modern politicians are up to the job!

  31. Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts says

    Excellent article.

    lpetrich @ #24: Republics are not the only alternative to monarchies, though they are quite common today. One of the earliest and clearest alternatives to monarchies, and arguably the most peaceful, is the constitutional monarchy. You make it seem as though the UK, given by you as an example of a figurehead monarchy, is recent, but it was established in 1689. It is not uncommon among republics for presidents, as heads of state, to be figureheads as monarchs can be in constitutional monarchies.

    As modern republics go, most are some form of parliamentary (with a prime minister), informed by that well-tried system, and all but 4 of the extant parliamentary republics were established after WWII and of those greater than half after 1990 (post-soviet).

    You might consider the US ‘experiment’ to have been daring, but I would disagree with that US-centric point of view; it was an innovative way to deal (so much as it did) with a very particular problem of the states’. US republicanism isn’t particularly common as republics go and while it was among the first republics of the modern world, that’s a result of the time during which it was implemented and its particular situation, rather than anything else.

    Republics are very nice and all, but you can hardly claim that the US (I would also disagree with your assessment that the ‘experiment succeeded’), was somehow precedent setting, as you seem to imply:

    Most of their successors choose not to create new monarchies, but instead, republics.

    Just not the sort of republic that the US created. These are republics, post WWI, that largely adapted the established and tried parliamentary system to the republic.

    It’s certainly true that WWI had vast effects, not least of which is the types of government chosen post-war due to the collapse of those large monarchies. It just seems very weird to point out that some of those governments that arose in Europe are republics, but not mention the type of republic, and then mention the US as if they necessarily have anything to do with each other. I would suggest that the history of the constitutional monarchy and the parliamentary system had much more to do with the type of governments established in post-war Europe than American republicanism. That much should be at least obvious, considering that there aren’t now, and haven’t been, any American-style republics in Europe.

  32. Thomathy, Gay Where it Counts says

    Don1 @ #31

    I have heard it suggested that the reason that the UK didn’t face a revolution or the collapse of the monarchy after the war, as other countries did, was that the casualty rate among upper-class young officers was as high or higher than that of the troops they commanded.

    Except that at the time the UK wasn’t ruled by the monarchy, so no the casualty rates among the upper-class had nothing to do with the lack of revolution or collapse of the monarchy. The suggestion is utterly ridiculous and without merit.

    There was no monarchy with any real power to be overthrown and the UK had had a stable democracy and successful succession of Governments for the last 200 years by the time of WWI. The UK, as now, was a constitutional monarchy. Not to mention the fact that the UK still controlled a vast empire and the commonwealth nations (not to be confused with the not-yet-established Commonwealth of Nations) had vested interests in the UK both politically and financially. To further elucidate on the absurdity of that suggestion, the monarchy of the UK is the head of state, today, of 5 countries (I do wonder about Ceylon) and the monarch of about a dozen others. There is no way for the monarchy to either be overthrown or to collapse without the aid of those 5 countries, one of which would certainly host the seat of the monarchy.

    I ask the following question with a face wrinkled with confusion: Are people really so ignorant of this history? Not that it is particularly important to be so well versed in the details, but it is this sort of thing (that the UK was a democracy during WWI) that seems like a rather basic fact.

  33. katybe says

    I know I’m late to this one, but I’d like to add one to Dalilama’s playlist. Les Sullivan has written quite a few songs around WW1, the most beautiful of which is The Menim Gate. Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of Les singing it online anywhere, but there’s a cover here – – I think Les’s vocals are better, but the lyrics are still haunting. If you check out Les’s site (, this one is on the Echoes of Lowlands CD, and he also has a link to The Roses of No Man’s Land, which is another of his WW1 songs, about the people who provided medical care on the front lines.