The First World War – the aftermath

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Bill Frilay

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Reeve 37283 Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health & Medicine, flickr cc

Beside the obvious battlefield issues, what were the indirect ramifications of the Great War? We tend to look at the direct impacts, especially battle fatalities, and these from an Australian or a British perspective. But what about the long-term impacts on all the participants?

At the micro level, the consequences must have been profound.

Take the slaughter on the Somme. Men and boys from northern England had been encouraged to join the ‘Pals’ brigades (being in the same brigade as the pals you grew up with). They died en masse on the Somme, leaving behind not just grieving families, but a generation of young women destined to be spinsters. In a small way, as a boy, I saw this effect; two doors away from us lived the elderly Miss Cook – her fiancé had died in that war, either at Gallipoli or on the Western Front, and she remained a spinster. In any event, the British discontinued the Pals brigade after the Somme.

Did France recover from Verdun where the Germans sought to bleed France white, and nearly did? Verdun was held – the place of the famous order ‘They shall not pass’ – but at a terrible price. According to Paul Johnson in his book Modern Times, French casualties at Verdun were 550,000 and for the Germans 440,000, about half of which were fatalities. During this war, France saw 1.3 million soldiers killed and a further 4.2 million wounded, about 73 per cent of all who served. And this excludes the 673,000 civilian deaths. I doubt if its spirit was regained in the following twenty years.

Drawing from another age, I read somewhere of an old French woman who recalled circa 1880 the joy of the mothers of France when Napoleon fell in 1815– because their sons would no longer go to war.

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First world war postcard, angus mcdiarmid, flickr cc

And then there were the soldiers who suffered from battle stress, and came home never the same. To take a contemporary example, at least 20 per cent, or over 500,000 US soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan are reported to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or depression. Not just that, but quite a few seem to be involved in violent murders, having an impact on the general community.

Terrible treatment was meted out to those in the Great War suffering from ‘shell shock’. Sharp electric shocks and other treatments in the infancy of psychiatry led to soldiers committed suicide rather than face the terrible treatments. And of those soldiers who could not bear it on the battle front, some were shot as cowards, some committed suicide. Imagine the sadness and unfair shame inflicted on so many of these families then and afterwards.

And how many marriages must have suffered as men came home ‘not the same’?

There were attempts to help. We had the soldier settlement scheme. While this was well intentioned, many walked away broke and broken. Geoffrey Blainey cites holdings too small, men unsuited for farming, poor soil, and – the final whammy – falling prices in the late 1920s. In Britain, the call for a ‘land fit for heroes’ seems to drip with irony, as high unemployment and industrial strife pervaded the inter-war period.

The 1920s have a reputation for decadence. This seems to depend on where you were. There was a consumer boom in the US which had not suffered so much. Europe was ridden with debt, and I suspect those wonderful art galleries in the US snapped up bargains from Europe in these times. But it all ended up in a great consumer bubble which led to the Wall Street collapse in 1929, the subsequent world Depression, and further misery. It took people such as Keynes to figure out a way through, but sadly it really was only World War II which saw the Depression finally go. One exception perhaps was Germany. Hitler by accident or design spent Germany to full employment.

Australians and others had been willing to go to war. And afterwards there were the landmark memorials in our towns., which may in fact cloak the impact on families who had suffered. The examples above focus on Australia and Britain, but I am sure you could find similar examples in the other participants.

At the macro level, the outcomes were catastrophic.

In Europe, governments of extreme right or left found their way to power. Communists seized power in Russia, and before too long the Russian people had Stalin’s regime of terror to contend with. Fascism took over in Italy, Hungary, and several other middle European countries. And of course in the thirties Nazis took over in Germany and then Austria. France suffered from unstable and poor governments. Unrest troubled Britain in the twenties. And all had to endure the Great Depression.

Europe was a mess by the thirties. It is perhaps not surprising that the many turned to communism as a solution, as the future of capitalism and the West looked bleak. Communism proved to be no solution.

The great European empires had disappeared: the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, the German, and the Tsarist Russian. It was the beginning of the decline of the British Empire.

Were there any good things to come out of this? Well, perhaps the end of empires. And the world tried with the League of Nations. It failed, but at least in the second attempt, after the Second World War, they got this right with the United Nations.

What about social reforms? Tremendous progress has been made over more than a century in this area in working conditions and wages, health, pensions, and so on. As far as I can glean, progress did continue in this area, although it may have been slower.

There was one other great post-war catastrophe. Spanish ‘flu affected 500 million around the world, killing 50-100 million. It probably would have happened in any event, but one record suggests the ‘flu may have started in 1918 in a troop hospital and staging post in Etaples in France.

What does all this tell us? That the direct consequences of war are not the only evils. There are terrible indirect and lasting consequences as well.

I wonder if we have invented a worse evil.

 

 

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