The First World War could not properly be called that until there was a Second, though a few, either from remarkable prescience or deep cynicism, so labelled it within a short time after its end. In the interim it was widely known, in English language countries, as the Great War, though sometimes the World War. It was the Great War when I was a child in the 1930s and had an uncle who had been there. 

Which begs some questions.

I’m not sure why it is was called “Great” but one guess would be it was because of the humungous number killed, on both sides,  soldiers and civilians, and another the scale of the struggle spatially.

It was certainly a great catastrophe with great suffering. It put paid to the complacent belief, before the War, in that greatest of things, Progress.

Great though the First World War was, it would be even Greater if it, and the Second World War, are seen as one war, with the first preparing the way for the second. It would then be the Second Thirty Years War of European countries, the First being that of 1608-1648. 

Which brings us to the psychologist Steven Pinker and his vast quantitative research as far back as he can go in his magisterial Better Angels of Our Time, where he compares the First World War, and the two together, with prior and subsequent struggles.

The First World War was horrendous: Pinker estimates a death toll of 15 million. It was a war of attrition with the original British army almost wiped out, replaced with shorter and younger recruits. Still, it is not the worst war ever.  Even in absolute numbers it is the thirteenth. In­ proportional terms (deaths relative to population, that is, deaths per 100,000 people, which is the proper measure from the viewpoint of a statistician), it falls to sixteenth, behind the Thirty Years’ War which becomes the thirteenth. 

Add together the two World Wars.  The Second itself was much worse than the First, a death toll of 55 million making it the worst ever in absolute terms and the ninth relatively.  This helps us to understand why Pinker thinks that the twentieth century may, in proportional terms, be the worst century ever, though it could be the thirteenth century, which includes the Mongol conquests. (If you are in to grisly numbers, the worst catastrophes of all time in relative terms are either the Mongol conquests or the An Lashan Rebellion in eighth-century China, which is estimated to have killed one-sixth of the world’s population. Pinker waggishly reminds us that when Abel slew Cain in the Garden of Eden, he wiped out one-quarter of the population.)

The First World War was not the worst of them all — we don’t have boasting rights in that regard — but that tells us more about other even worse wars than about the First World War itself. Suffering isn’t proportional, it’s absolute, and the First World War was absolutely horrendous.

So were its consequences.  The First World War triggered the Bolshevik Revolution and gave us communism. It gave us Hitler who fought in the trenches, who then gave us the most terrible fascism. It gave us the vengeful reparations imposed by the Allies on Germany which fed German grievances and further paved the road to the Second World War. It gave us American ascendancy which, with communism, gave us the Cold War. But I must stop before our future is foretold. 


The First “World” War?

Then there’s the question: was the First World War really a “world” war or was it a bloody civil war of the West which the Great Powers (there’s that word Great again; perhaps wars fought by Great Powers are automatically Great), with their Eurocentric bias wrongly labelled a “world” war?

True, the Great Powers having empires and colonies, troops came from afar: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United States, India, China, Africa, which sounds global.

The German historian Jurgen Osterhammel, from the deep depths of his wisdom in his recently translated book The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, judges that “the First World War initially left large parts of the globe untouched; only its end in 1918 triggered a worldwide crisis, including a deadly influenza pandemic.”

That pandemic, called the Spanish flu at the time, killed somewhere between 50 million to 100,000 million people around the world. Its spread was worsened by soldiers returning to their homes from the fighting fields in France. It may have originated in China, and almost 100,000 Chinese workers laboured behind the British and French lines, transporting supplies and digging trenches. Or, as has been speculated by Margaret MacMillan in The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, it escaped from the rich micro-laden soil in the north of France and Belgium which was churned up by the shelling.  So the war likely worsened the toll.

How the war was perceived outside Europe and their empires has also to be factored in, and it gives “global” a different meaning. Pankaj Mishra offers an Asian perspective in his book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia.  Mishra tells us that what mattered to “the subordinate peoples of the world” was Japan’s defeat of Russia in a great naval battle in 1905. “For the first time since the Middle Ages, a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war….White men, conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible.” What Europe’s Great War convinced them of was that the white men were devouring themselves, could not get their act together, and had lost their claimed “moral prestige.” It was the beginning of decolonization.


On which the sun never sets

It was also the beginning of the loss of European hegemony to the United States. America stayed out of the First World War for three years and, on coming in, deserves credit for driving Germany into defeat. A just published book by the historian David Reynolds — The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century — sees the “bloodbath” in Europe as telling Americans that the Old World was failing as a civilization and the future lay with the New World’s America and with the spread of its way of life.  Out of that came, for the good and the bad, Woodrow Wilson and his successors like George W. Bush.  

Is the long shadow of the Great War at last dimming as the American people turn against war, though not for Mr. Harper who has done his best to stir things up among the Great Powers — U.S., Russia and the EU — in the Ukraine, while mostly serving American interests. But has he not become a mere shadow of himself, unlikely to save himself by celebrating the terrible death toll of Canadians in a war that was about as far as you can get from a just war.

Let the last word go to Ian McKay and Jamie Swift from the first words in their excellent book on Canada’s military history, Warrior Nation (2012.) On November 11 1918 the very day that the Armistice was signed — now Remembrance Day — with the text ending the war awaiting only the formal signing, Canadian forces were ordered to recapture Mons, Belgium — where British forces had met their first defeat by the Germans in August 1914. An act of revenge, its purpose was to teach the Germans, already defeated, one final lesson. Canadians died in that final battle, their lives uselessly wasted. What the veterans of Mons knew, write McKay and Swift, is that “There never was, and never will be, a Great War. Lest we forget.” 

Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is Editor Emeritus of This Magazine and a frequent contributor to Peace magazine. Watkins is recipient of the 2008 inaugural Galbraith Prize in Economics and Social Justice awarded by the Progressive Economics Forum. 


Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is Editor Emeritus of This Magazine and a frequent contributor to Peace magazine. He is a member...