On November 11, the United States celebrates Veterans Day. This same day is called Remembrance Day in most of the British Commonwealth. New Zealand, Belgium and Serbia call the day by its original name, Armistice Day. On Veterans Day we honor the men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces. Prior to 1954, before Congress changed the holiday’s name, we observed on November 11 the end of World War I. Or more specifically, we remembered the horrific carnage that killed 9 million soldiers and wounded 21 million.
We also remembered, or should have remembered, on Armistice Day the questionable excuses for the start of WWI. How did WWI start? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are historians. But here is a likely scenario offered by Dr Heather Jones, associate professor in international history, LSE.
Relatively common before 1914, assassinations of royal figures did not normally result in war. But Austria-Hungary’s military hawks – principal culprits for the conflict – saw the Sarajevo assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Bosnian Serb as an excuse to conquer and destroy Serbia, an unstable neighbour which sought to expand beyond its borders into Austro-Hungarian territories. Serbia, exhausted by the two Balkan wars of 1912-13 in which it had played a major role, did not want war in 1914.
Broader European war ensued because German political and military figures egged on Austria-Hungary, Germany’s ally, to attack Serbia. This alarmed Russia, Serbia’s supporter, which put its armies on a war footing before all options for peace had been fully exhausted.
Ambitions did not stop with European expansion but extended into the Middle East. In the world of 1914, the Ottoman Empire ruled Arabia, Bedouin leaders wanted self-rule, and European leaders wanted to divide Arab territories among themselves.
Thus, the British offered self rule and control of Syria to Arab leaders, in exchange for their expelling the Ottomans. This arrangement was made in ten letters exchanged from 1915 to 1916 between Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca and Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner to Egypt. Sharif Hussein took the letters seriously and defeated the Ottomans in 1918. Events after the end of WWI bring into question whether Lieutenant Colonel McMahon took the letters to heart as well.
At war’s end, nearly 30 nations gathered at the Paris Peace Conference, including a token Arab Delegation, supposedly to iron out terms of peace. However, three of the Big Four – Prime Ministers David Lloyd George of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy – had already decided to divide territories in Europe and the Middle East between themselves.
They had already also decided, encouraged by Clemenceau, to dispense ruthless punishment on Germany.
As for the fourth of the Big Four, United States President Woodrow Wilson, who hoped for a new era of cooperation and self-rule, British economist and delegate to the Conference, John Maynard Keynes referred to him as “a blind and deaf Don Quixote.” True, Wilson was slow to understand that attendees of the Paris Peace Conference were not interested in his 14 Points for Peace, or for that matter, apparently not interested in peace at all.
Germany was almost completely disarmed and required to pay reparations on a scale calculated to beggar her population for a generation. She lost 10 per cent of her population, 15 per cent of her agricultural production and 20 per cent of her iron, coal and steel.
Thus, the Weimar Republic, born in 1919 in the throes of German defeat and resentment, gave rise to Adolph Hitler only 14 years later.
In the Middle East, mandates created spheres of influence under which Syria and Lebanon went to the French, and Palestine and three Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia – transformed into Iraq – went to Great Britain. This arrangement unraveled by the end of WWII. France retreated from Syria and Lebanon in 1946 after uprisings by the local inhabitants. Britain withdrew from Palestine in 1948, after partition and creation of new states of Israel and Jordan.
The British protectorate of Iraq formed after WWI went through an interesting iteration. Concerned about unrest, Britain established a kingdom in Iraq in 1921 and placed Faisal I bin Al-Hussein as King. That strategy calmed the populace a bit and pacified Faisal. Although not welcomed with open arms, King Faisal I proved an effective and unifying leader.
Faisal was the son of the Sharif of Mecca Hussein bin Ali (mentioned earlier), the Hashemite leader who started the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Emir Faisal and British Intelligence Officer Thomas Edward Lawrence waged relentless guerilla warfare against the Ottomans, defeating the colonizers in 1918. The Emir was confident Britain would keep its promises, he would be the recognized King of Syria, and soon the Arab-speaking world would be united under his leadership. Since Britain decided otherwise, Faisal had to be content with being King of Iraq, where he ruled until his death in 1933.
At war’s end, T. E. Lawrence was skeptical but hopeful. Sadly, his skepticism proved correct and his hopes futile. A passage from his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, originally published in 1926, perfectly describes his and Emir Faisal’s struggles for naught.
We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.
The Treaty of Versailles peace was forged by the old men, as were many other agreements and mandates during and in the wake of WWI. Much of the maladroit world these old men created in their own likeness is still here today.
T. E. Lawrence has another often quoted passage in Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.
Perhaps this November 11, 2022, Armistice Day of remembrance, might inspire dreamers of the day throughout the world to challenge the bellicose world we have inherited, and ask a fundamental question, is war really necessary?
Pictured: Select delegates to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919