September 22, 2014

The Great War

What happens in government and how a battle progresses are simply the highest and most visible of the many levels of war.

Not long ago, Paolo Sorrentino’s film La Grande Bellezza was playing at cinemas. The title was translated from Italian into Estonian unsatisfactorily as Kohutav Ilu (literally “terrible beauty”), while it is The Great Beauty in English. In Western culture, World War I is also known as the Great War, La Grande Guerre, Großer Krieg and La Grande Guerra. The words grande and “great” do not have exact Estonian equivalents, but if at all, then this is the occasion where kohutav sõda (literally “terrible war”) should be used as a translation instead of suur sõda (literally “big war”).
In the interactive documentary film1 produced in collaboration between the British newspaper The Guardian and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts on the occasion of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, ten historians from different countries speak and the phrase “One word: tragedy” is uttered at the end of the film. It was indeed an individual and national tragedy as well as a global one. In one way or another, the war affected every family in Europe, including in Estonia.
The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I is an occasion well remembered in the world. In Estonia, it was also commemorated by the international research conference “The Great War in Eastern Europe—Different Experience, Different Memories” held at the Estonian War Museum – General Laidoner Museum in spring 2014. The next Estonian Yearbook of Military History is based on the presentations made at the conference and will be published in the coming year. In many languages, the word “anniversary” indicates something festive, for example in French, anniversaire means “birthday” as well as “anniversary”. War memorials are often grand and monumental, festive. On the one hand, the anniversary of the outbreak of the war is an occasion for mourning and commemoration but, on the other, also for honouring and remembering the heroism of those who participated in it. People try to remember the good and also give meaning to the terrible events so that the sacrifices do not seem so senseless. Approximately ten million soldiers died in World War I, two-thirds of them in battle and the rest due to disease. About 20 million soldiers were wounded. More than half of all mobilised soldiers fell or were wounded, captured or reported missing. The number of civilian casualties due to the war is estimated at six to ten million. Thus, World War I claimed the lives of 16 to 20 million people. Approximately 100,000 men were mobilised in Estonia to the establishment of the Imperial Russian Army, 10,000 of whom fell or went missing in action.
These high numbers are regularly repeated to show how terrible the war was, but we cannot actually imagine what is behind them. Ten million fallen soldiers—it is as if almost the entire population of Estonia, including women and children, had died ten times over during four and a half years—in rat-infested trenches, in fields of mud devastated by shells, on barbed wire, in the dressing stations stinking of pus and chloroform, coughing up lungs poisoned with gas, due to dysentery, starving in a prison camp, or doing forced labour. During those years, death was indeed multifaceted, returning for a final blow in 1918 in the form of an unusually deadly influenza epidemic. Nobody knows exactly how many victims were claimed worldwide by this virus strain—which is especially dangerous to strong young adults—but, according to recent estimates, the pandemic affected one-fifth of the world’s population and killed 25 to 50 million or, according to some data, even 100 million people.
Many people who did not die immediately in the war had to live the rest of their lives as invalids from injuries received or with mental disorders caused by psychological trauma. The new military technology that developed quickly during the war years caused different types of injury and various kinds of suffering. Artillery played an important role in industrial trench warfare and also caused the most damage. An exploding shell could rip off a head, a limb or the entire lower part of the body. The modern steel helmet was developed to avoid head injuries caused by shell splinters. The use of poison gas was characteristic of World War I, but this did not in fact claim very many victims as gas masks were quickly brought into use as a countermeasure. However, gas poisoning was an agonising way to die and another new weapon—the flame-thrower—was causing fear on the battlefield. Many of the weapons and tactics adopted in World War I are basically still in use now, a hundred years later: tanks, submarines, planes, bombardment, chemical weapons etc. Recruits still learn how to dig trenches and build shelters, and a gas mask is still part of the standard equipment.
Trench warfare has become a symbol representing the meaninglessness of war and everybody can probably visualise an attack: men running out of a trench to almost certain death in no-man’s land, which had been turned into a mire by artillery fire and was full of broken strands of barbed wire and craters. It was precisely because of those attempts to break through that the well-known offensives on the Western Front—the battles of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele—claimed so many lives. The term “cannon fodder” had been used before, but it is associated particularly strongly with World War I.
Trenches were also dug on the Eastern Front, but a stalemate similar to that on the Western Front was not reached. The 1,600-kilometre long Eastern Front, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the Caucasus, was considerably longer than the Western Front and this fact alone made complete entrenchment impossible. On the Eastern Front, diseases such as typhus, cholera, dysentery and malaria caused a disproportionately large number of deaths due to poor sanitation. This also caused a high death rate among the civilian refugees who had fled from the Eastern Front. Even though Germany was unable to avoid the greatly feared war on two fronts, it did manage finally to secure a victory and the establishment of peace in the east thanks to the Russian collapse, and intended to launch a decisive offensive in the west, but it was already too late.
World War I was a total war and Germany had exhausted its resources. It was not the first war to fit this concept, but it was certainly overwhelming. The term itself gained wider usage precisely in relation to World War I. Der Totale Krieg was the title of the memoirs of Erich Ludendorff, General of Infantry, who was the chief engineer of the German war machine with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. In his book, Ludendorff discusses the requirement for the mobilisation of all the physical and mental resources of a nation for warfare to be successful. In the case of World War I, the first of these aspects was demonstrated in the famine faced by the warring countries, as well as in the rationing of necessities, women going to work in factories in place of the men who were on the front line, and state propaganda in order to keep the so-called home front mobilised for a joint war effort.
The totality of the war ensured that nobody in Europe was left unaffected by it. Historical research has long since started paying attention to the social, cultural and personal aspects of war, because what happens in government and how a battle progresses are simply the highest and most visible of the many levels of war. Researchers study how the new trauma of shell shock was handled, the relationship between battlefields and influenza epidemics, war medicine in the navy, why planes were painted in bright colours, the social consequences of war in society, crimes against prisoners of war, working women, minorities, attitudes in the countries that remained neutral, and so on. Estonian historians such as Aigi Rahi-Tamm and Liisi Esse (Eglit) have also studied the war experience of Estonian soldiers on the basis of letters sent from the front line and later reminiscences. Esse has also written about the experience of Estonian soldiers upon returning to civilian life.
There is a lot to learn about the relationship of Estonia and Estonians to World War I. The aforementioned numbers of 100,000 and 10,000 have been repeated many times, but they are only estimates. Thus, we do not even know exactly how many Estonian men participated in the war. Academic Tõnu-Andrus Tannberg has studied mobilisation the most, but not with regard to the entire period of the war. World War I, together with the German occupation in 1918, has undeservedly been given a secondary role in Estonian historical awareness. In a sense, we cannot pinpoint the original cause of an event in the field of history but, in the given context, Estonian independence was the result of a chain reaction triggered by World War I. The Estonian War for Independence may be viewed as one of the multitude of wars that continued following the official end of hostilities on 11 November 1918 at Compiègne. Those continuation wars helped many nations attain self-determination and statehood. Continuation wars also show that, even though people were tired of the war, neither the losers nor the winners were happy with its immediate result. They needed to keep fighting so that the sacrifices made would not be meaningless. World War II was thus, in a way, actually also a continuation of World War I.
War is terrible in every way. Is it also possible, however, to find something positive in it? Is there any merit to the legacy of war? I would not want to use the word “human” for these aspects, primarily because warring itself and violence towards congeners is, unfortunately, completely human. In addition to death and suffering, war stories speak about compassion, friendship, self-sacrifice, heroism, the capacity of human abilities, simple luck, food, sex and love. One well-known symbolic episode is the unofficial truce on the Western Front during the Christmas week of 1914, when several spontaneous ceasefires were called. German, British and French soldiers exchanged seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches and met in no-man’s land, exchanging gifts and even playing football. In a peculiar way, World War I unified nations. Imperial armies were multinational, with distant overseas colonies involved. Canadian and Indian units fought side by side. The war, however, accelerated the end of this trans-nationality, because war-torn empires collapsed on the crest of a wave of nationalism, which had emerged long before. The new nation states that arose were, in turn, for many—in the words of General Johan Laidoner—the greatest ideal.2 Positive outcomes were technological development, changes in the position of women in society and the birth of war-inspired works of art. People finally managed to learn, from the experience gained from the Versailles Treaty, how to end World War II in such a way that peace would continue. The memory of the war helps us to value more the cooperation that has been achieved in the European Union—finally without an empire or force of arms.
Unfortunately, insecurity still exists in the world. While a century ago the Balkan powder keg was considered the origin of the next war in Europe, today the sources of insecurity are elsewhere. However, in an interconnected world, distant conflicts also affect us all, even if only in the form of higher prices in stores. Shockingly for Europe, war has again reached our backyard, in the form of the conflict in Ukraine. This reminds us, worryingly, that Europe still has an ambivalent relationship with its great eastern neighbour.
World War I is commonly depicted as the end of the world as we know it. In that sense, we are still living in a world shaped by the world war. As I observe what is going on in this world, I would like to paraphrase Erich Maria Remarque and say, In der Welt nichts Neues. Great art can speak to people better than science. It is sufficient to take Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front from a shelf or to look at Otto Dix’s triptych War.3 As I went through hundreds of photos taken during World War I, one stood out the most: soldiers in overcoats standing next to crosses stuck in the mud in a so-called emergency war cemetery established right at the front’s rear.
1 A global guide to the First World War—interactive documentary
2 Johan Laidoner’s notes in the Vladimir Prison on 26 September 1944.
3 Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Otto Dix. DER KRIEG (WAR) The Dresden Triptych


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.