Conflict & Justice

Why do Europeans obsess about World War I?


The author's great-grandfather, Ernest J.Woolf, fourth from right, served in France during World War I.


Chris Woolf

You can’t turn on a TV in Europe right now without seeing something about World War I. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of that conflict; a conflict that still looms large for many Europeans. By contrast, Americans seem to be a lot less engaged.

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That’s surprising. More than 100,000 Americans died while serving in the military in World War I. That’s more than Vietnam, Korea and Iraq combined. However, you have to remember that in popular memory the war is sandwiched between the Civil War and World War II.

The Civil War remains the benchmark for many Americans when it comes to judging sacrifice and casualties. The costs were enormous and the memory of the war is kept alive in political and cultural divisions that persist between the states.

The sacrifices were also much greater for Americans in World War II. That conflict still fires the imagination of modern Americans. Its veterans are remembered as “The Greatest Generation.” The veterans of World War I are not only gone, they seem to be largely forgotten.

For Europe, World War I was a much more intense experience than for Americans. It came out of a century of peace. There had been wars, of course, but all were short in duration and limited in scope. There had been no general war involving all the Great Powers since 1815.  

In the popular imagination, war and empire were generally seen as good things. War was a manly, patriotic challenge in the books for boys that were sold across Europe. Its reward was glory and the thanks of the nation.

It was also the first modern, total, industrial war in Europe. Nations strained every nerve to gain an advantage. Every industry had to contribute. Every man had to serve. My own great-grandfather was called up in his mid-30s, a family man and father of four. Military service was a universal experience for pretty much every able-bodied man under the age of 45 or 50.

Then there was the nature of the fighting. Military technology in 1914 favored the defensive. Barbed wire, machine guns and artillery slowed any advance. Railroads ensured that the enemy could move troops quickly to counter any breakthrough. The net result was that across much of Europe — not all — you ended up with large-scale positional battles of attrition. That’s military jargon for saying the frontlines barely moved, so that men fought, ate and slept amid a blood-soaked wasteland for months or years.

There was precious little glory to be found in the trenches. War itself was redefined.

The war dragged on for more than four years. America’s participation was decisive, but a lot shorter, just 19 months. Its troops were not heavily engaged in large numbers until the last weeks and months.

As a result, America’s casualties were much less than Europe’s. The United States lost about 1/1000th of its population. In the UK it was about 1 in 50. In France about 1 in 25. That level of death led Europeans to talk about ‘The Lost Generation.’

Millions more were crippled or blinded by gas. In the trains on the Paris Metro (subway), you can still see signs telling you to give up your seat for “Les mutilés de la guerre.”

To justify the losses, governments spun propaganda to dehumanize the enemy, and to create lofty goals worth dying for. Hence the talk of “the war to end wars.” Or promises that veterans would be provided with “homes fit for heroes.”

After the war, the propaganda was proven to be false. The war didn’t really have a higher purpose; it was an old-fashioned conflict between great powers for control of territory and resources. The English public had been told that Germans used babies for bayonet practice. That never happened.

Then the promises to veterans were broken. The economic dislocation of the war, coupled with post-war recession led to mass unemployment.

This is one of the biggest transformations caused by World War I: a new mistrust of government, a revulsion against militarism and patriotism, a demand for social justice, a wave of nihilism in literature.

To some extent, society did change. In Britain, for example, life in the trenches broke down the class barriers that divided society. Many well-born army officers became champions of their brothers-in-arms from the rank and file. It was no coincidence that it was in 1918 that all British men were granted the right to vote, and the first women, too.

Across Europe, women had entered the work force in roles previously reserved for men, and after the war many were unhappy about losing those jobs.  

Besides the horrors of war and the social and economic dislocation, World War I also ended with a massive transformation of borders. The German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires collapsed, and a host of new countries and territories emerged. The Bolshevik Revolution transformed Tsarist Russia into the Soviet Union. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Yugoslavia were created in eastern Europe. Their weakness and Germany’s hunger for revenge led to World War II.

The Middle East was arbitrarily carved into Iraq, Syria and Palestine by the British and French. Those borders made sense, right?

After the war, people looked back nostalgically to the last summer of peace. It was often portrayed as an era of bucolic innocence or naïve gaiety. In fact, it was an era of political turbulence and social stress, but that’s not how popular culture remembers it.

The effects of World War I continue to be debated, but you can see why Europeans see it as the crucible that transformed their lives and set the patterns for the rest of the century. For Americans, the losses of the war were a shock but the effects on society and the economy were a lot less severe.

As for my great-grandad, Ernest James Woolf, he survived his two years in France with the British army’s heavy artillery and came home in one piece.

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    Gunner Ernest James Woolf, Royal Garrison Artillery, British Expeditionary Force, France. WW1


    Chris Woolf

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    During WW1 the family lived in Peaslake, Surrey, for a time. My Gran is the little girl standing with her brother. That's Ernest, my great-grandfather with the bike, and I think that's Florence Ellen, my g-gran with the little girl on the wall.


    Chris Woolf

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    Postcard to Ernest in France in WW1 from his Mum and Dad. Context not clear but sounds like he had a close shave.


    Chris Woolf

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    The lady seated is my great-great grandma, Eliza Ann, with my gran Nellie on the right, with her siblings. This would have been during WW1, as the baby Rhoda was born in 1915.


    Chris Woolf