This Nov. 11 will mark the 100th anniversary of the guns falling silent, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month. The Great War, which has since become known as the First World War, was over.
In recent years, I’ve used the reference of the Great War more often than not, because that is what it was known as by those who fought it. Most people today wouldn’t even know that.
And that’s why, instead of talking about the impact, or the horrors of war, this time I’m going to suggest some ways people can better educate themselves about the War to End All Wars, that didn’t end wars in the slightest. Instead, it led to the biggest one of all.
Several audiobooks (and, correspondingly, their hardcopy versions, if you prefer) have opened my eyes.
The Great War clearly led to the Second World War. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany is by William L. Shirer, an American journalist in Berlin during the rise of Hitler. Shirer often saw him in action, first hand, from 1933 until 1940. He carefully follows how Adolf Hitler was affected by the Great War, and how its outcome was an enormous motivator for his later actions.
Hitler’s nemesis in the Second World War was Winston Churchill, a man who was an instrumental player, at least in the early years, on the British side during the Great War as First Lord of the Admiralty. He was the guy who came up with the Gallipoli campaign to seize the Dardanelles. It was an inspirational stroke that all went to naught due to the British admirals flubbing their element of surprise. The Gallipoli disaster had a huge impact on Churchill, who gave up his cabinet seat and went and fought in the trenches.
Churchill also was the one who came up with the idea for the tank, something that has changed war ever since. You can read about Churchill in The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume I: Visions of Glory 1874-1932, by William Manchester.
The most significant book, for me, is A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918, by G. J. Meyer. I thought I knew something about this war before. I found out I knew squat. While this book is difficult to get into, with the lengthy explanations of how various countries came to mobilize, once the guns start firing, it picks up from there.
For those who aren’t into audiobooks or reading, there is a remarkable YouTube series I’ve discovered in recent weeks.
It’s called The Great War, and can be found at www.youtube.com/user/TheGreatWar. The channel’s description notes, “The Great War covers the events exactly 100 years ago: The story of World War I in realtime. Featuring: The unique archive material of British Pathé, Indy Neidell takes you on a journey into the past to show you what really happened and how it all could spiral into more than four years of dire war.”
It’s an absolutely fascinating body of work. Taking more than four years to produce, the video series, each a little over 10 minutes, goes week-by-week explaining what happened during that week of the war. It wraps up this week, and as a result, it is possible to binge-watch the entire series.
(They started doing the same treatment to the Second World War this fall. Look up “World War Two” on YouTube. It’s also great to watch.)
In addition to the weekly episodes of The Great War, they have done an enormous number of snippets, profiling everything from tank tactics to mountain combat. Many individuals are profiled.
While the name of Canadian Billy Bishop is well known as our premier flying ace, have you ever heard of Francis Pegahmagabow? Me neither. But the series says he, a First Nation man, was the most successful sniper of the whole war, credited with killing 378 Germans and capturing another 300 more. He was born on what is now known as Shawanaga First Nation in Ontario.
Let’s put this into perspective: Vasily Zaytsev, the hero of Stalingrad, who has had a Hollywood movie, Enemy at the Gates, made about him, is credited with 225 kills. Yet no one has heard of the Canadian sniper Francis Pegahmagabow.
And that’s my point. I’ve studied the Great War a bit, and there is so much that most people don’t know about the conflict that, today, still shapes our lives.
All of these are well worth a read, a listen or a watch, because the War to End All Wars certainty didn’t.
— Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.