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An Overview: World War One

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The massive fighting of World War One ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918. When the global conflict began in 1914, many people expected it to last only a few months. A series of entangling alliances meant that almost immediately two great blocs faced each other. On one side was the Entente or The Allied Powers -- France, Britain, Imperial Russia, and then Italy-- facing three continental powers: Germany, The Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. By 1918, after the United States had joined as an "associate power" of the Entente, nearly 10 million soldiers, and as many civilians, had died, and there were almost three men wounded for each one killed - approximately 20 million killed and almost 30 million seriously injured. Mass killing on an unprecedented scale had stamped its mark on the modern world.

The "Great War," the "war to end all wars," became a terrible symbol of the destructiveness within industrial civilization. Imperialism, capitalism, and nationalism had all fused together to create conflict and social crisis. Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders fought for the British Empire - so did hundreds of thousands of Indians and other non-Europeans. France, too, called on its colonial subjects to come to the muddy fields of northern Europe. People of all kinds, mobilized by the military machines of many countries, came to meet in a common catastrophe.

After the conflict ended, no part of the globe was quite the same - there was revolution in Russia, the collapse of Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, while new nations arose in Europe. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the mass consumer market appeared. So did fierce economic speculation, social dislocation, automobiles for the average guy, and modern absolutisms, such as fascism in the Italy of 1922.

The Great Powers entered World War I in a state of collective delusion - all sides, it seemed expected the conflict to be short. This was a time, though, before the modern tank and the possibility of extremely rapid, mechanized movement on the battlefield. And, because in most wars the advantage almost always lies with defending forces, the armies of World War One, without the tank and a modern air force, quickly became bogged down in the slowest kind of fighting - trench warfare.

Conditions in the miles and miles of trenches were terrible. The German fortifications were technically superior, while the British and French ones were frequently full of water and mud. So was the "no man's land" between opposing lines of trenches.

For days, months, and years troops stayed in these water-ridden holes. Disease was rampant - "trench foot," "trench fever," and typhus. Because the sides moved very little, a war of attrition held sway in which millions were shot, bombarded, and gassed, with a number literally rotting in the trenches.

Soldiers had rudimentary rations consisting of biscuits, tea, some cheese and vegetables, but under terrible conditions food would often rot. 8 million people were taken prisoner in World War One, but ironically a captive's chance of survival was much higher than those fighting in the trenches, and huge numbers of men often surrendered en masse. Conditions for those captured by the Ottoman forces were poor, and in Russian POW camps conditions were horrendous. Paradoxically, some people in Great Britain had been so poorly nourished during peacetime, because of endemic poverty, that there were troops in the British Army who ate better in uniform than they had back home in civies. But in the German trenches, by the end of the war, there were even troops dying of starvation.

There was a huge number of trenches spreading over thousands of miles and communication was by tunnel and on foot, and even by small locomotives. Runners and dispatchers went back and forth among the multitude of fixed positions, like ants scurrying nowhere.

During the war, the technical capacities of all sides increased greatly with the gradual introduction of zeppelins, airplanes, tanks, even an aircraft carrier near the end. Some participants - such as the young Charles de Gaulle - realized that the next great conflict would involve highly mobile tactics. But for the most part the war of attrition paralyzed the minds of the generals conducting it.

Both the British and the French called on colonial troops of colour to fight in the European mud. Moroccans, Algerians, and Senegalese fought for France, while the Indian Army participated for the British. Even West Indians came to Europe to participate.

The Canadian war effort was extraordinary in a number of ways. Almost all of the Canadian participants enlisted, but many of those had, in fact, been born in Great Britain. For English-speaking Canadians the war was bound up with 19th century chauvinism centered on the ideas of King and Empire. Canada had a population of roughly 8 million in 1914, and of that total nearly 10% enlisted - a little more than 600,000 - and of those, more than 10% were killed. Almost another 30% were wounded. Soldiers from Canada fought in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), attached to the British Army, and from the CEF the Canadian Corps was formed, only getting its first Canadian commander in 1917, General Sir Arthur W. Currie. Despite early efforts to form French-speaking units from Quebec, authorities resisted such initiatives, placing French-speaking enlistees in scattered units where they met with bigotry and incomprehension. Eventually the famous 22nd Infantry Battalion was created which itself alone suffered 4,000 dead and wounded.

For much of the time, though, the war was not popular in Quebec, and the publisher and political leader, Henri Bourassa, called it an imperialist conflict in which the people of Canada had no real interest. Beginning in 1917, the conservative government in Ottawa, known as the Unionist Party, pushed for conscription, and that produced The Military Service Act. When federal authorities began to enforce that legislation in 1918, protest broke out in many parts of Quebec, and the friction culminated in Quebec City on April 1, 1918, when the army opened fire on a crowd, killing four pedestrians not even connected with the protest there.

As the war came to an end, the Service Act became disliked even in places outside of Quebec. The Great War came to a close, but the sense of a distinct modern nationalism in Quebec had begun.

During the war itself, Canadian troops were involved in a significant number of the important battles. For the French and the British, each side had a particularly bloody struggle which marked the national consciousness. For the French it was the Battle of Verdun in 1916 which eventually resulted in more than a quarter million men dead, and nearly 500,000 wounded. Among the British, the Battle of the Somme, also in 1916, was remembered for its casualty rate - more than one million men. On the first day of that battle - July 1, 1916 - 19,240 British soldiers died and the army took more than 57,000 casualties. During the long battle of the Somme, 24,000 Canadians died or were wounded.

At the time of the Great War, Newfoundland was still a self-governing, British dominion, separate from Canada. The Newfoundland Regiment displayed astounding bravery, and of its 7,000 members, 1,300 were killed and over 2,300 wounded. Newfoundland's saddest day of prowess occurred at a place called Beaumont-Hamel in the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. On that day, 753 members of the Regiment went into battle, and twenty-four hours later only 68 were still alive. Little wonder that Newfoundlanders still remember that extraordinary day of sacrifice.

The Canadian Army's most famous, and most remembered engagement was the taking of Vimy Ridge between April 9, 1917 and April 12, 1917. Four divisions of the Canadian Corps attacked in a highly planned and co-ordinated assault. They were victorious, but at great cost. There were 3,598 dead and 10,602 wounded. And Vimy itself was only part of the larger Battle of Arras.

To the imagination of the world the fighting which seemed to be most symbolic of all this terrible destruction was the Battle of Passchendaele, a huge killing ritual to control a small village of the same name. Since a good deal of the local area was reclaimed marshland, all that terrain soon became a great bog of mud in which an unknown number of soldiers actually drowned. Even newly introduced tanks sank in the muck.

After three months of close fighting, the Canadian Corps finally took Passchendaele on Nov. 6, 1917. The Germans had lost more than a quarter of a million men, and the allied powers had sustained almost half a million casualties.

The armistice came almost exactly one year later - and then the fateful peace which, unfortunately, planted the seed for yet another global conflict in the next generation. Little wonder then, that European historians have recently come to think of World War I and World War II as two phases in Europe's Civil War of the twentieth century. For people living outside of Europe, World War I stands as a great warning of how a world can first fall apart and then tear itself asunder.