Learning from the horrors of WW1

What began for many young New Zealanders as adventure in 1914, ended so badly for  them, for families and for communities in every corner of this land.

The horrors were unimaginable and the impact indescribable.  A generation of young men was lost and New Zealand — and the whole world — would never be the same.

The figures themselves are staggering.  When Otago-Southland deaths alone are estimated at almost 4000 it is easy to see why  World War 1 was known as the Great War,  why the saying "the war to end all wars" gained currency even if it was always an unattainable dream.  About 10 million died in battle, and some estimates put overall deaths, including civilians, at 37 million.

New Zealand’s primary war remembrance is Anzac Day, with its evocations of Gallipoli and its connection to an emerging sense of identity.  For Britain, though, Armistice Day and the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month has for the past 100 years been a dominant focus for commemoration.  The two minutes’ silence at the 11th hour has been widely marked.

As the bells toll for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1 at 11.02am tomorrow, Armistice Day itself has risen in the consciousness of this nation — and rightly so.

From the perspective of history, it was a conflagration that should never have happened.  Sparked by an assassination in Serbia, a network of alliances came into play and Europe was soon at war.

And what an ugly war.  Hundreds of thousands of men were sacrificed for a few metres of ground, and machine guns and artillery brought death on an industrial scale.  The 1916 Battle of the Somme resulted in more than a million men killed or wounded, all for an advance of less than 10km.  That battle became a by-word for futility.

Those who interpret history’s underlying forces see a rising Germany colliding with the power of Britain and France.  It was thought the ties of trade, culture and royal blood, as well as lessons from the past, would prevent such conflict.  It was not to be.

Some now see parallels with Japan’s frustrations as a ascending power and its entry into World War 2.  Others fear that stupidity, nationalism and ambition could lead to a growing and dangerous square-off between an ever more powerful China and a  United States losing its place as the world’s sole superpower. That anxiety is despite  mercantile symbiosis and a global commercial world.

It is clear all sides will suffer if trade disputes escalate.  Where might it end?  World War 1 provides bloody and cruel evidence of what can happen.  We display arrogant superiority if we think the same cannot occur again.

What, too, about the  hubris that the war would be over quickly,  before Christmas 1914 so some believed?

That is a lesson that should have been learnt but was not — as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have proved. It is so easy to overestimate the effectiveness of  military might.

And who could imagine the war would be so devastating, so horrific?  That is another lesson to bring forward from World War 1 to today.

George Santayana,  an American poet and philosopher, said "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".  Author Mark Twain put it slightly differently when he said  "history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme".

The world should take heed.  Although it is a very different place 100 years on,  the disaster  that was World War 1 provides lessons for 2018 and beyond.

As World War 1 becomes distant, and as the centenaries of its battles and its ending are complete, the Great War should remain in public and political consciousness.  Its horrors and its circumstances  afford guidance for tomorrow and for generations to come.

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