A Century Ago, a 'Dizzying Plunge' into War

World War I offers an essential key to understanding the 20th century

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium (Photo: Chris Hagerman)

August 2, 2014 | By Christopher Hagerman

As the last of Europe's Great Powers plunged toward war one hundred years ago this Sunday, August 3, the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked that "The lamps were going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time." Events proved him correct. The Great War, the war to end all wars, had already begun and though he lived to celebrate the armistice, the war's ramifications haunted the world long after his death in 1933. It was not, as headlines remind us daily, the last war. It wasn't even the last World War. However, it was a "Great War"—in scope and significance if nothing else.

By any objective standard it ranks among the most significant passages in modern history. The years 1914-8 witnessed the dawn of modern industrial warfare—complete with machine guns, tanks, aircraft, submarines, and poison gas. The consequent loss of life was, by any standard, simply staggering, with some 37 million soldiers and civilians killed, wounded or missing. This unprecedented trauma reshaped Europe and the Middle East, where four great empires fell and more than a dozen new states emerged from their ruins. Of course, in so doing it laid the foundations for a second and even greater global conflict (not to mention the ongoing struggle over what was then called Palestine).

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, near Thiepval, Picardy, France
Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, near Thiepval, Picardy, France (Photo: Chris Hagerman)

But the Great War's impact extended far beyond geopolitics. It changed the very fiber of European culture, altering social discourse, reshaping mourning rituals, challenging gender roles, accelerating the rejection of traditional forms in the arts and literature to give only a few examples.

For all this, the First World War seems to get short shrift in popular historical consciousness, especially in America. Perhaps it seems too remote chronologically, or too European. Perhaps America's relatively late arrival, and relatively minor role make it less compelling than the Second World War. Or maybe the persistent misconception that the war achieved nothing beyond the profligate expenditure of blood and treasure makes it seem unimportant. But for the historically minded the Great War offers an essential key to understanding the history of Europe and the world in the 20th century. For the rest, the dizzying plunge from the golden summer of 1914 into a darkness lit only by the Guns of August offers a cautionary tale.

Christopher Hagerman is associate professor of European history at Albion College. In May, he and students from the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program visited sites on the Western Front. Read an albion.edu feature as well as Hagerman's blog for details about the trip.

A bronze plaque on the main floor of the Mudd building in Stockwell-Mudd Libraries commemorates the hundreds of Albion College students and alumni who served during the Great War.