Still unthinkable, even today: The Great War @100

Royal Irish ration party Somme

Monday marks 100 years since the outbreak of World War I... the Great War, the War to end all wars. Leading American Catholic writer, George Weigel, turns his mind to the subject in this essay for First Things.


In 1936, the British writer Rebecca West stood on the balcony of Sarajevo's town hall and said to her husband, 'I shall never be able to understand how it happened.' It was World War I, the civilizational cataclysm that began, according to conventional chronology, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in the Bosnian capital on June 28, 1914, by Gavrilo Princip, a twenty-year-old Bosnian Serb.

World War I was known for decades as the Great War. It seems an apt title. For if we think of a century not as an aggregation of one hundred years but as an epoch, what we know as 'the twentieth century' began with the guns of August 1914 and ended when one of the Great War's more consequential by-products, the Soviet Union, disintegrated in August 1991.

World War I set in motion virtually all the dynamics that were responsible for shaping world history and culture in those seventy-seven years: the collapse of dynastic power in the fall of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires; the end of the Caliphate; new nation-states, new tensions in colonial competition, and new passions for decolonization; the mid-twentieth-century totalitarianisms; efforts to achieve global governance; the next two world wars (World War II and the Cold War); the emergence of the United States as leader of the West; serious alterations in the basic structures of domestic and international finance; and throughout Western culture, a vast jettisoning of traditional restraints in virtually every field, from personal and social behavior to women's roles to the arts.

It was the Great War in other ways, too. Human history had never seen such effusive bloodletting: 20 million dead, military and civilian, with another 21 million wounded and maimed. Beyond that, the Great War created the conditions for the influenza pandemic that began in the war's final year and eventually claimed more than twice as many lives as were lost in combat.

Sixty-five million soldiers, sailors, and airmen were called to their respective national colors in a struggle that evoked great acts of valor. Between 1914 and 1918, more than six hundred Victoria Crosses were awarded to British and Dominion troops. In Australia, Anzac gallantry during the 1915 Gallipoli campaign is still remembered as the formative experience of Australian nationhood. Names like Sergeant York and Eddie Rickenbacker continue to inspire courage among Americans.

The Great War also raised profound ethical questions about war, about nationalism, and about moral judgment in political and military affairs. It was the war during which the idea that 'the great and the good' governed society by natural birthright was interred; the war in which the British poet Wilfred Owen, awarded the Military Cross for heroism in combat, wrote that those who had experienced a gas attack 'would not tell with such zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.'

Full story, The Great War Revisited (First Things)  

Religion and the first world war: From godlessness to ruthlessness? (The Economist)

A tale of two soldiers (The Tablet)

Inside the First World War (The Telegraph, London)

The Great War A 100-YEAR LEGACY OF WORLD WAR I (The New York Times)

In case you missed these stories, which CN linked to in our coverage of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War on Friday:

German bishops: Churches share blame for Europe's slide into First World War (The Tablet)

Yes, It Could Happen Again (The Atlantic)

World War I and Vatican Diplomacy (Vatican Radio)

Concert marks prelude to World War I (Vatican Radio)

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