The war to end all wars, apparently

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.

Graves of New Zealand Division soldiers at Tyne Cot – a photo I took in 2004.

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

7 thoughts on “The war to end all wars, apparently

    1. I think warfare is hard-wired into the human psyche. It’s often intellectualised into other forms, but it’s always there, one way or another. I suspect it was a survival mechanism during hunter-gatherer days. These days, with nuclear weapons etc in the arsenal? Not so much, but unfortunately the hard-wiring keeps letting humanity down as a species.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. My history is a little shaky but …was it the Marshall Plan that was based on lessons finally learned after the Treaty of Versailles?
    No offence gents, but from a biological perspective, there is something in the XY chromosome that makes warfare inevitable. In most mammal species, one male is more than enough for a pride of females so the males duke it out to see which one of them get to reproduce. The losers don’t. Perhaps warfare is the human way of stopping unneeded males from reproducing? Or perhaps our wars take the place of small, tribal skirmishes that winnow out the physically weakest of the males?
    But then, to be fair, there’s something in the XX chromosome that makes females gravitate towards ‘jocks’. To me, the big question is: how did the human race manage to produce so many /clever/ people anyway?
    Sorry, you can probably guess that I’m not feeling very kindly towards homo sapiens at the moment. :/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the Marshall Plan was deliberately implemented in the late 1940s to prevent a repeat of the disastrous way the post-WW1 settlements had played out. Oddly, the largest single recipient of this aid was Britain!

      I am not sure there is a gender distinction relative to the tendency of humanity as a species to make war on itself. As one example, the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) are a matrilineal society, yet warfare was part of their activity pre-colonial times. Another example are the Khasi, on the Indian sub-continent – another matrilineal society with a clear history of involvement in warfare. There’s an interesting paper here on it: – the paper is from 2005, ‘Women and Warfare: How Human Evolution Excluded Women’ by Brett Kennedy (hopefully that link will work).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the link, Matthew. I’ve just started reading it but…some of it just doesn’t ring true. For instance, Australian Indigenous people saw family bonds as being between the woman, her children and /her/ brothers. Not the ‘father’. Clearly the studies looking at pre-history didn’t study them.
        That family connection does make sense though. In primitive societies, the children are made by the mother. That link is visible. The contribution of the ‘father’ is not. But as the woman and /her/ brother came from the same /mother/, their link is visible too.
        More generally, whatever the current and historical reason for male dominance, just because a few women are known to have been ‘warriors’, isn’t exactly significant when the vast majority of women were not. And that’s across all races and cultures.
        Given the level of equality enjoyed by most women today, you’d think they’d be clamouring to become ‘Amazons’, but most still don’t /want/ to be warriors.
        And therein lies the answer, at least to me. Yes, there are women who commit murder, and yes, there are women who join the army and actually go out to fight, and yes, some of them are probably very good at it, but the vast majority don’t and aren’t.
        As for men, okay, as a woman I probably shouldn’t make great, sweeping generalisations, but…my Dad was a very smart man, but he was also a very aggressive one. After an almost tragic incident when he was 17, he controlled that aggression the rest of his entire life, but it was /there/. Never towards me, I hasten to add.
        By contrast I’ve also met wonderful men who wouldn’t hurt a fly if they could possibly avoid it. -shrug- Unfortunately, they are rarely the men who rise up into positions of power. Maybe because, like women, they don’t /want/ it.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.