Main Image Credit A colourised photograph of the signing the Armistice that ended the First World War in a Wagon Lits carriage in the Forest of Compiègne, north of Paris, on 11 November 1918. Courtesy of Wikimedia
This year marks not simply the centenary of the end of the ‘War to End all Wars’, but is also the conclusion of four years of contemplation on the conflict that changed the way in which combat was waged.
It would be hard not to draw specific conclusions that link to today’s security environment, but that is not the primary aim of RUSI’s reflections on the Great War; instead, it is to highlight nearly half a decade of subsequent careful analysis of that conflict.
The 1914–18 conflict has been characterised by some as consisting of heroic endeavours and national pride in resilience, yet it was also a conflict waged in a brutal way; total war that exploited tactics viewed today as barbaric.
It was a war of existential importance to the UK and its dominions: rules, behaviours and norms of conflict that we recognise today were broken, remade and broken again.
It was a contagious conflict, not simply because new technologies allowed for military engagements over global distances, but because it also employed unprecedented information technologies
Technology played a part, but not a dominant one; the conflict was most critically a human endeavour – and one in which participants at all levels were reminded of the feral, brutal reality of war. The result was a scale of death and destruction unimaginable to pre-war populations.
The tension between the romanticism of a war fought for moral reasons and principles was at odds with levels of human suffering that became clear in the immediate aftermath; the latter perhaps being the more dominant image today.
It was a contagious conflict, not simply because new technologies allowed for military engagements over global distances, but because it also employed unprecedented information technologies. For instance, war reporting and propaganda exploited radio and media for the first time to reach a global audience ready and keen to engage with it.
It also was a period in which the actions of well-meaning citizens were levied for wider advantage by governments, a Napoleonic concept of harnessing the masses not simply as warriors, but as a nationwide effort.
The orchestration of the empire in waging the war heralded the arrival of a new type of civil leader, exercising control of levers of power with deft professionalism and harnessing industrial partnerships with focus and vigour.
Controversies continue over whether leaders – both military and political – were either geniuses or failures, but the polemics rarely do justice to the pressures, structures and attitudes of the day.
The war replicated many of the hallmarks of previous conflicts, but it also marked an inflection point in the ways war were waged
The Great War was also not fought by professional armies. The conflict was marked by mass mobilisation, training, indoctrination, alliances, innovation, experimentation, agility and frustration.
Like all conflict, it was also based on failures; from the start of the campaign, military operations never yielded the decisive results that had been predicted. Neither the first battle nor the arrival of technology was to dominate. It was the analysis of failure that yielded the people, processes and actions which led to decisive moments.
In such ways, the war replicated many of the hallmarks of previous conflicts, but it also marked an inflection point in the ways war were waged. The divergence of military theory, of thinking about how militaries might be employed, really began with the experiences of the conflict. States changed the design of their forces based on their own experiences.
The interoperability between allies started to decline hours after the eleventh day, on the eleventh month, of 1918. And air power began its own journey.
Yet for all these reflections on warfare and combat, people and technology, and the radical changes to concepts of war, it was not the ‘War to End All Wars’. The presumptions of peace that followed the Armistice and the forlorn hopes invested in the League of Nations could not prevent Europe returning to war twenty years later. The Allies may have won the Great War, but they unquestionably lost the peace.
These will be the themes which will guide the Institute in its coverage of the end of the war, which will continue for most of this year.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.
Professor Peter Roberts
Director, Military Sciences