A century ago the guns ceased to fire and the slaughter, the greatest slaughter mankind had ever inflicted on itself, ended.
At 11 o’clock on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, soldiers for the first time in more than four years could stroll about the battered ground of France and Belgium without fearing that they would be riddled with machine gun bullets or atomized by an artillery shell or disemboweled by a bayonet thrust from a man whose language they did not speak.
At that moment, when the Great War ended — its combat phase, anyway — optimism replaced despair.
Though the stench of gunpowder and poison gas and rotting corpses would linger, there was a pervasive sense that humanity had reached a milestone, that the unprecedented, indeed the unfathomable, sacrifices since 1914 would yield the sweet fruit of lasting peace.
Today, of course, we know how wrong our forebears were, how misplaced their idealism.
We know that the Great War was not the “war to end all wars.” Nor was it the war that “made the world safe for democracy.”
Less than a generation later the conflict would swap its “great” status for a Roman numeral, as though it were merely the first episode in a film franchise destined to spawn a sequel of even more significance.
World War II would indeed eclipse its predecessor in every statistical sense. The fighting spread over more of the globe and cost billions more dollars and ended tens of millions more lives.
Yet Nov. 11, 1918, is no historical footnote.
I would argue, in fact, that it is the fulcrum not only of the 20th century but of everything that has come after.
This is no revelation, to be sure.
Historians for decades have explored the link between the Great War and what we might call the modern world. The connections are so obvious, so undeniable, that it could hardly have been otherwise.
It requires no great leap of logic to believe that had the Great War not happened — or, at any rate, had the conflict not been concluded with the Treaty of Versailles and its egregiously punitive treatment of Germany — then the Second World War would not have been fought.
If the victorious Allies, immediately upon the signing of the armistice, had ended the sea blockade that was literally starving Germany, had they made a more equitable settlement at Versailles, postwar Germany likely would not have seethed with quite the level of resentment over the next two decades.
This would have deprived Adolf Hitler — himself a soldier of the Great War — of the most important tool he used to bend to his will the most powerful nation in Europe and thus set off the cataclysm of 1939-45.
And if we can blame the Second World War solely, or even largely, on the First, then it follows that the 1914-18 war sowed too the poisonous seeds whose bloody harvest marked the rest of the century.
The Cold War, for instance, was among the defining events after 1945, and it is beyond dispute that the First World War is a proximate cause (though certainly not the only one) of the 1917 revolution that led to formation of the Soviet Union and everything — the Berlin airlift, Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam — that resulted from the long, strange conflict between Communism and capitalism.
Still and all, I find it implausible to believe that other epochal events — the splitting of the atom and the invention of atomic weapons, most notably — would not have happened if not for the Great War.
Certainly the exigencies of the Second World War accelerated that research, but the history of scientific discovery strongly argues against the notion that such a fundamental aspect of physics would not have happened regardless of warfare.
None of this is knowable, of course.
History entices us to engage in endless speculation about the correlation of events — this is perhaps its greatest attraction — but the world is far too complex to allow us the comfortable certainty of causation in every case.
Yet on this occasion, one century after the guns fell silent in Flanders fields and the other killing grounds, I find it irresistible to ponder what might have been.
In particular I wonder how things might have turned out differently if the men who had suffered so terribly, who had seen so many of their fellow soldiers die in all sorts of horrific ways, had had some influence on the “statesmen” who drafted the terms at Versailles. It was the bellicosity of the latter which ensured that Germany would not be vanquished, as they believed, but would instead become an even more dangerous enemy, and one led not by professional soldiers such as Ludendorff but by a madman.
The men who fought for the Allies in the Great War made it clear in their memoirs that whatever hatred they had for the Germans was leavened by respect — respect not only for their foes’ fighting ability but also the kinship of men who were caught in the same deadly maelstrom no matter which country’s uniform they wore.
I’d like to believe that most of those men would have gladly given up the temporary and ersatz satisfaction of humbling the defeated Germans to avoid their sons having to face them again, in some cases across the same befouled fields.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.