The War to End All Wars
About 10 years ago, the Watauga County Library hosted a program called “Tea and Tales.”
Each month, speakers would speak on a different topic, and the audience was encouraged to converse with the speakers and ask them questions.
At one “Tea and Tales” event, Wade Brown, then in his 90s, spoke about his childhood in Blowing Rock. He talked about life in the village in the early part of the 20th century, naming stores and hotels on Main Street that were long gone and about how the emergence of electricity changed everyone’s daily life.
I asked him what were some of his earliest memories of national and world events. Wade Brown told me about the time when he was still a young boy and they had a big parade in Blowing Rock for all of the soldiers who were returning from World War I, then called “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars.”
Brown also spoke about his own war experiences in the Navy during World War II.
In case you didn’t know, Wade Brown later served as the mayor of Boone from 1961 until 1967. He died at the age of 101 on March 9, 2009.
Today, all of the veterans of World War I are gone, and you would’ve had to been a very small child and now a very old person to remember when they came home from the war.
In fact, this year is the centennial of the beginning of “The War to End All Wars.”
We all remember from our history classes the principal facts about World War I: It was set off by a singular event, one that seemed as personal as it was political. On June 28, 1914, Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo. This heightened political tensions between Austria-Hungary and neighboring Serbia, leading to an armed invasion of Serbia by Austria-Hungary. The first shots were fired on July 28, 1914, and before long, the rest of the world was taking sides in the conflict.
Except the United States, that is.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson retained a strict non-intervention policy toward the war raging in Europe, even after a German U-boat (submarine) torpedoed and sank the British liner RMS Lusitania on May 17, 1915, with 128 American civilians on board.
Wilson warned the Germans about sinking civilian vessels but kept the United States military out of the war. That non-interventionist policy is thought to be one of the things that helped Wilson win re-election in 1916, with his supporters echoing the unofficial campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
Sometimes, however, you get an invitation to the big party that you just can’t pass up. In World War II, that invitation came when Japanese airmen bombed the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The same sort of thing happened in World War I; you just don’t hear about it as much. In January of 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, knowing that it would probably result in the Americans joining the Allied Forces (Britain, France and Russia) in Europe.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was a telegram.
The German foreign minister sent the infamous “Zimmermann Telegram” to Mexico, inviting that country to join the war as a German ally against the United States. In return, Germany promised to finance the Mexican war effort and help Mexico recover the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Think about how different our country would be if Germany had been able to pull off that promise. If you think there is great Mexican food in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico now, just imagine how good it would be. But I digress.
Intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom intercepted the Zimmermann Telegram before it reached Mexico and presented it to the U.S. Embassy in London. Officials there passed it on to President Wilson who read it and said, “Oh, it’s on.”
The Zimmermann Telegram proved to be World War I’s Pearl Harbor, and soon the U.S. was sending 10,000 fresh troops to France every day. Wilson and the U.S. Congress even passed “The Jones Act,” which gave U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in exchange for being drafted into the war.
World War I was a war of many firsts. It was the first major war utilizing airplanes and the first one filmed by movie cameras. New inventions, such as the telephone, wireless communications, armored cars and tanks, changed the way military strategy was communicated and carried out.
It was also the first war featuring extensive use of chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene, resulting in the development of the modern gas mask.
The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 specifically forbade the use of chemical weapons in time of war, but did little to deter it once the battles began.
Other developments that made World War particularly deadly were modern machine guns and newly invented flamethrowers. Both sides also used new railway guns, sometimes called “Big Berthas,” that weighed hundreds of tons apiece and could shoot projectiles more than 50 miles.
Nine million combatants died in World War I, not counting the additional millions who died in the great influenza pandemic of 1918 that was partly spread by the mass mobilization of troops at the end of the war.
Scientists and historians believe that 50 million to 100 million people died worldwide due to the pandemic, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the population at the time.
As we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, be sure to pause and give thanks to the veterans of World War I. Especially if you live in Texas, Arizona or New Mexico.