I have just finished reading 1916 A GLOBAL HISTORY by Keith Jeffery, professor of British History at Queen’s University, Belfast, Ireland. He tells the story of the First World War through the global events of 1916 that dramatically altered the fate of many nations. A century later we are still mired in consequences of that fateful war.
He starts in January 1916 with the end of the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign, in which my grandfather participated. While that invasion of Turkey failed it provided a case study for the U.S. Marines as they learned from the mistakes of the Allies in their preparation for the Pacific theater in World War II. It also fueled the rise of Mustafa Kemal as the founder of modern day Turkey. In February and March he recounts the massive struggle for Verdun and the making of Marshal Petain as a French hero. In April there was the Easter Rising in Dublin against English rule and the subsequent poisoning of the relationship between the Irish republicans and the Irish unionists which continues to this day. In May there was the largest naval engagement in history at Jutland which finished the German fleet as an active force. The Russian front was stabilized in June as a tremendous cost of human lives. The murder of Rasputin capped off the year by removing his influence on the Czarina and therefore on the Czar. Russia was spiraling into famine and revolution. In July a major revolt broke out in central Asia, sparked off by the imposition of conscription by the Russian Imperial authorities on a recently colonized Muslim population. The Indian Army marched into Mesopotamia and modern Iraq was eventually born out of the Ottoman Empire. In East Africa the German army held out to the end of the war. The hostilities between the European colonial powers may have caused the death of some 200,000 Africans who served in their forces.
Between July and November the Battle of the Somme was fought along a twenty mile stretch near that river. There were 623,000 Allied and 580,000 German casualties. The Allies advanced no more than ten miles. It is hard to believe that my grandfather was part of that costly and essentially futile battle. Greece attempted to remain neutral for King Constantine was educated at a Prussian military academy and was married to Kaiser Wilhelm’s sister. However an Allied force took over Salonika to relieve Serbia from Bulgarian attacks. There were twelve battles fought between Italian forces and those of the Central Powers between June 1915 and November 1917. Five were fought in 1916 along the river Asonzo. Mussolini would switch sides in World War II.
Jeffery concludes: “for a variety of reasons, the wounds of the Great War remain unhealed.” The Middle East still seethes with the effects of parceling up the national boundaries by the Allies. “The indefensible political boundaries and conflicting sectional aspirations with which the belligerents of the First World War filled up that space…have left a doleful legacy of bitter antagonists and unrealized ambitions which bedevils the region to this day.” The same could be said for Africa. Russia has never recovered. The U.S.A. found that it could not remain isolated from the rest of the world.
Today, geopolitics contains new threats to our peace and wellbeing. We must learn from the mistakes of the past or else we are condemned to repeat them. It requires steady hands on the helms of our governments to steer clear of the twin dangers of military adventurism on the one hand and diplomatic isolationism on the other.