This coming week marks the 108th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, a war that was meant to be over in just a few months but where the fighting did not end until November 1918. The death toll was apocalyptic, particularly on the Western Front that ran from the Channel coast to the Swiss border.
At the time it was called the Great War – a term that still appears on many of the monuments and memorials to it. When it broke out, H. G. Wells, writing in The Times, called it ‘the war that will end war’; this editorial and others were put together into a neat little 99-page volume of the same title, published in October 1914. This was after the ‘miracle of the Marne’, in which the German armies descending upon Paris were turned aside, but before the fast-moving struggle had devolved to static trench warfare.
Wells was a popular author of the day and the term stuck: by 1918, as Wells himself noted, it was in circulation. And Wells, initially, appears to have naively believed that this was so, although he later reversed that view. It became ‘the war to end all wars’. The view in Germany, however, was different: as early as September 1914, Ernst Haeckel called it ‘the first world war in the full sense of the word’. However the idea of specifically calling it the ‘first’ World War was coined by the journalist Charles a Court Repington. Allegedly he first wrote it down in his diary on 10 September 1918, then used the term as title for his memoir of his own experiences, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1920.
Looking back it is easy to be cynical about the hopes that the First World War would be the end of all human fighting: it had been the most destructive war yet fought by humanity, an industrialisation of death. Surely nobody would be so foolish as to start another war. Surely. Yet the reality was very different. Sadly, war appears to be integral to human nature. And this was well understood at the time. As Antony Padgen remarks in his book Worlds at War: the 2,500 Year Struggle between East and West (OUP), on p. 407, after the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, a young British officer named Archibald Wavell – who was present – remarked that “after the ‘war to end war’, they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris to making the ‘peace to end peace'”. He was quite right.
Today, as yet another territorial war rages in Europe and the rest of the world seems poised on a knife-edge in other ways, we do well to remember the First World War and the terrible human cost that came with it. I am not so naive to suppose that this remembrance will end war, but it is, at least, a lesson in what happens in them.
For the details of the New Zealand side of that story, check out my book The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front, my account of the social and human experience of New Zealanders in their key campaigns of the First World War. Click to buy.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022