Remembering the Great War

Never such innocence again.
Philip Larkin, MCMXIV

By the time the Armistice ending the Great War was signed 11 November 1918—the Guns of August having at last fallen silent—four bloody years of lethal destruction had elapsed, leaving the Old European Order in ruins, its pretensions shattered beyond recall. In the bitter aftermath of disillusion that had, like a dark shroud, blanketed the post-war world, the easy innocence and idealism that had once shaped people’s lives seemed all but blown away. Like the snows of yesteryear, they were no more. The accumulated moral capital of the pre-war world appeared to have been spent. Quite simply, the long lazy afternoon of the nineteenth century, with its smug suppositions about the inevitability of material progress and human perfection, had all been blown to bits in the first weeks of the war, strewn about the poppies growing in Flanders Fields.

Or so it seemed to the survivors, members of a doomed generation,whose cynicism and disgust found voice in Hemmingway’s A Farewell To Arms. There language itself was made to stand in the dock, summoned by the staccato sentences of his machine-gun prose. So many words, said Hemingway, could no longer be spoken. “Only the names of places had dignity …

Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

The Great War—the War to End All Wars—began exactly a century ago, in Sarajevo, an obscure city then situated within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose hapless Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne, got himself assassinated by a Serbian fanatic, thus catapulting a dozen or so countries into a killing spree that would consume sixteen or so million people. That nearly half the numbers killed were non-combatants suggests the enormity of the tragedy.  As for its outcome, who can doubt but that it marked the terminal phase of a civilization that, while it may have once called itself Christian, could no longer maintain the fiction.

“It was three o’clock in the morning,” muses Dr. Tom More, hero of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins:

I had been reading my usual late-night fare, Stedmann’s History of World War I. For weeks now I’ve been on the Battle of Verdun, which killed half a million men, lasted a year, and left the battle lines unchanged. Here began the hemorrhage and death by suicide of the old Western world: white Christian Caucasian Europeans, sentimental music-loving Germans and rational clear-minded Frenchmen, slaughtering each other without passion. ‘The men in the trenches did not hate each other,’ wrote Stedmann. ‘As for the generals, they respected or contemned each other precisely as colleagues in the same profession.’

So did no one try to stop the carnage? And if they had, would it have succeeded in putting an end to the senseless butchery? Not very likely, it seems. A collective death wish having taken hold of the generation of 1914, nothing short of a miracle could have ended the mass psychosis. How else does one account for the madness of trench warfare? Four hundred and fifty miles stretching from Switzerland to the Channel, that murderous lesion covering France and Belgium known as the Western Front would claim the lives of between five and fifty thousand soldiers a day. “When all is said and done,” wrote the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who despite multiple injuries managed to survive the bloodbath, “the war was mainly a matter of holes and ditches.” Yes, and into each bloody fissure along the length of that flesh-eating front, the fairest blooms of European manhood lay fallen and dead. Why was there no one willing to stop it?

Actually, there were. But who would listen? Certainly not the ardent young men who, during that unclouded summer before catastrophe struck, could scarcely wait to avenge King or Kaiser. Nor the generals, eager to try out their new toys, a vaunted array of technologized terrors like tanks and airplanes, submarines and poison gas. Not surely the politicians, who, having loosed this juggernaut upon the world, had no idea how to stop it.  Besides, as practically everyone on both sides exuberantly predicted, the war would be over by Christmas. No one, it seems, had bargained on four blood-soaked years of entrenchment along the Western Front.

“How sweet is war to those who know it not,” wisely exclaimed the poet Pindar some twenty-five hundred years before the war that was thought so horrible as to make future wars unthinkable.

And yet there were voices raised in opposition. Indeed, at least two of them were Vicars of Christ, who, from the very first days of the conflagration, stepped bravely into the breach to try and put a stop to it. The first was the saintly Pius X, whose resolute refusal to bless Austrian arms signaled to the world the “absolute impartiality” of the Church concerning the issues dividing the belligerents. His death, some three weeks into the conflict, made way for his successor, Pope Benedict XV, the real protagonist for peace, who wasted little time in condemning the excesses of either side. Less than a week into his pontificate, he issued Ubi Primum, an Apostolic Exhortation outlining the horrors to come. An entire continent, he direly predicted, would soon be “red with the blood of Christians.”   It would, he feared, portend the end of civilized Europe. The Proud Tower, described with such lavish and meticulous detail by historian Barbara Tuchman in her panoramic study of the world before the world—1890 to 1914—had finally collapsed.

Let it not be said that the Church stood silent, keeping her own counsel in the face of so blatant and far-reaching a resurgence of barbarism. The spectacle of seeing so many of her own children killing one another to no purpose, roused the fierce instincts of a Mother in whom, the sainted Augustine would exclaim, an entire world stood reconciled (Mundus reconciliatus ecclesia). And so, even before the year was out, Benedict would issue two additional appeals. The first, on the Feast of All Saints (November 1), was the encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (Appealing for Peace), in which he reminded the world that as the father of all peoples he had every right to call a halt to the holocaust of his children.

The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons military science had devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror.

When that heartfelt appeal fell on deaf ears, the Pope tried again, this time entreating the belligerent nations to observe a Christmas truce, “in order that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” But did they listen? Not officially, to be sure, the warring governments having dug their heels too deeply into the mud, as it were, of Flanders Fields. But the men in the trenches responded with alacrity, arranging their own informal truce, a series of ceasefires during which Christmas lights were hung, carols sung, gifts exchanged, and even games of soccer played inside the killing fields. But the reprieve soon ended, the war resumed, and millions more were to die.

Other initiatives were taken by the Pope, including a Peace Note issued the following year, calling everyone to a conference to consider various proposals to ensure a “just and lasting peace.” It was rejected summarily by both sides. (How clearly the Pope’s impartiality was vindicated by the fact that the Allies should call him the German pope and the Central Powers the French pope!)   What were the salient points? Only that military arsenals be reduced, disagreements be adjudicated without recourse to war, free access to the seas be ensured, self-determination for the peoples of Europe be respected. That sort of thing. Alas, none of it proved sufficiently persuasive to people bent on total destruction of their neighbors.

So the engines of war kept on cranking out their corpses for another year or so, leaving Europe in the end not only prostrate from the devastating loss of life but determined, certainly among the Germans, to resume the struggle once they had recovered. “Nations do not die,” prophesied Benedict at the time of Versailles, that most vindictive of treaties which he had not even been permitted to help draft. And thinking especially of the German peoples on whom the long shadow of war would fall with special ferocity, he reminded the Allies that, “humbled and oppressed, they chafe under the yoke imposed upon them … passing down from generation to generation a mournful heritage of hatred and revenge.”

Pope Benedict XV, who did not last much longer than the war he tried to stop (he died in 1922), could not have seen its sequel, though he had certainly foretold its coming, though even he could not have imagined the scale of hideousness and destruction it would bring.

What did you do in the war, Daddy?
I tried to prevent the damn thing! 

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • minaya

    You should also mention king Alfonso XIII of Spain, who tried to get the fighting powers into peace, and who arranged many measures to relief the pains of war, including prisoner exchanges and support for the Red Cross.

    And of course there was also Blessed Charles I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, who launched peace talks with France and Britain that were ultimately rejected.

    By the way, both were devout Catholics.

  • Fred

    The war(s) to end all wars, right? History is fickle and people sadly forget the horrors. Reading about it in a book is sterile for most – for those that bother. With all the turmoil in the world it does not take much imagination to see the possibilities for yet another looming on the horizon – and maybe not between nations either. Time will tell.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Everyone wanted war in 1914

    1. Ever since the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Austria and Germany had been determined to prevent Russian expansion in the Balkans.

    2. Austria knew that, if she allowed herself to be humiliated by Serbia, she could not keep control of her minorities.

    3. Germany saw war with Russia as inevitable and wanted it before Russia completed her rail network and gained the ability to mobilise her vast reserves quickly.

    4. With her prestige already damaged by her defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia knew if she allowed her ally, Serbia, to be humiliated, she could well face revolt in her Western provinces, particularly Poland and the Baltic states, from which she drew the bulk of her tax revenue.

    5. With her stagnant birth-rate and Germany’s growing one, France knew she could not wait another generation, if she were ever to recover the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and avenge the defeat of 1870.

    6. Italy wanted to incorporate Austria’s Italian provinces (Italia Irredenta).

    7. Tirpitz’s naval expansion and the consequent arms race with Germany was ruinously expensive for Britain and, ultimately, unsustainable.

  • publiusnj

    Minaya makes the point that Alfonso and Charles I were Catholics. One big problem with the Pope’s efforts to stimulate Peace Talks was that none of the chief protagonists save Charles was Catholic. Ah, but what about France? France was firmly in the control of the anti-Catholic faction. They had passed the 1905 Laws pushing the Church into the shadows and ran the Army as an atheists’ old boys network. Ferdinad Foch, who was a devout Catholic, had no leadership role in the French Army until nearly the End of the War because the Government favored non-believers such as Joffre and Petain over Foch.

    As to Hemingway’s perhaps understandable claim that WWI meant that words like glory were obscene next to the names of regiments, though, I must disagree. I have had the honor (and grace) of visiting my grandfather’s grave in an American Military Cemetery East of Paris; he died in battle in 1918, and is buried there with thousands of other American soldiers from his and other regiments. I have also had the honor of visiting the mausoleum of the tens of thousands of French soldiers who bled out the fields of Verdun over a nine month long battle in 1916. Both cemeteries are moving places where the words glory and honor come to mind quite freely.

  • DE-173

    “Quite simply, the long lazy afternoon of the nineteenth century, with its smug suppositions about the inevitability of material progress and human perfection, had all been blown to bits in the first weeks of the war, strewn about the poppies growing in Flanders Fields.”

    This is the one part I’m not sure about. Calling this war, or any other “the war to end all wars” is a blatant denial of reality ex ante, and ex post it was demonstrably stupid and it was made-along with the cries of “nationalism”-by those who wanted to remove their fingerprints from the articles of that war-the smug supposers.

    The smug suppositions of the Nineteeth century march on. Marx and other misanthropes are still treated with respect, and the Prussian bureaucratic superstate has been replicated everywhere. The silliness of the League of Nations, failed and was replaced by the U.N. There are those that would revise the U.N. to become the only government-including that brand of statist masquerading as a “Catholic” (and sometimes as a Bishop”, whose true and boubnless faith in government is evident by their invincible evasion of any concern with subsidiarity. Too many people still sound like a meeting of the nascent American Economic Association, promising the flowering of human dignity in the garden of expert tyranny.

    Perhaps one of the most rancid doctrines of that time, the manipulation of the great benighted masses by the self appointed few-eugenics, is making a comeback. Hence we recently had one of the great architects of Obamacare declaring that living past 75 wasn’t something to be aspired to-how long will it be before they decide that such an age is not merely undesireable, but something so intolerable, the state will deny it?

    • Finarfin

      “If the League of Nations could make a war it would be the only thing it ever has made.” – Hillaire Belloc

  • John O’Neill

    It is good to be reminded of the horrors of war at the anniversary of WWI and to become more aware of the warmongers among us. Presently the American government is pushing the envelope with nuclear armed Russia. At the same time the American government is providing billions of dollars worth of armaments to the Middle East where whole scale slaughter is going on. The American government has become dependent on the vast arms industry for its prosperity and the prospect of perpetual war drives the amoral politicians who run the regime.

  • Michel Lhombreaud

    I enjoyed this article. Yes, it’s good to be reminded about human history. My French granddad was a “gueule cassée” as he had his face blown up by a dum-dum bullet in the Dardanelles. Although not a man of any faith, he deplored the war, called most generals “butchers”and distrusted all politicians. As to honour and grace, acts of self-sacrifice and true gallantry did no doubt occur, however, these are the exception. One word which makes me cringe on memorial day is the word “hero”. Let us not forget also that fit young men (they had to be fit to be butchered) were duped by their politicians, then forced at gunpoint to “go over the top”. Just as the Pharisees in Jesus’ time took the credit for honouring the prophet’s tombs their ancestors had killed, so do today’s politicians paint a rosy picture during their war memorial speeches. The reality was quite other.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    I’ve always though Paul Johnson was right: it was just one war 1914-1945 (with a breather in the middle).

    • DE-173

      Wasn’t that the original proposition of Churchill in the 1930’s?

  • Sede Diplomat

    As someone who wants to meet with people with generally the same political aims, I would like to introduce myself in this my second post as a sedevacantist but one who is as civil as possible but not without an agenda: to convert people to the truth faith and/or to present myself as one of many sedes who would like to work with and not against fellow right-wingers.

    As such I hope the denizens of this site do not mistake my posts as “trolling” -If I wanted to waste people’s time like that I would’ve become an NSA agent.

    Now about the article:

    WWI was a real disappointment for all sides involved and I would like to pose the question to people on this site which side of the conflict you take or would’ve taken (or maybe no side at all?)? It’s not a clear cut choice for me either ways but I’m definitely more sympathetic to the Central Powers, which I see as more conservative and more Catholic (excepting the Ottomans of course) and they were on the verge of victory just when the US entered the conflict.

    • Sede Diplomat

      I can’t help but view WWI as a test and punishment for Catholics who allowed nationalism and secularism to overcome the Papal States. They didn’t think “is this good for Catholics?” and allowed their minds to be clouded by worldly concerns.

    • DE-173

      “As someone who wants to meet with people with generally the same political aims”

      1.) Use the same pseudonym. Don’t post as “Diplomatic Sedevacantist” in one thread, and “Sede Diplomat” in another.

      2.) Get a Disqus ID, so that your commentary is viewable.
      Otherwise you will be properly identified as a PHO TROLL.

      My gut is telling me that it’s been a while since “Arrerio” posted….

  • ForChristAlone

    Has anything ever been written about those men who evaded fighting in this war?