History, James Joyce assured us in Ulysses
, is a nightmare from which we're trying to awake. The notion of historical nightmare has been on the minds of many as the world marks the 100th anniversary of World War I
, which began in earnest in August 1914.
In the four years that followed, the destruction across Europe changed the landscape, as well as the mindset of the continent for good. In many ways, Europeans, no matter what their nationalities, still live with the decisions made in the hot summer days between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in June, to when Austria-Hungry declared war on Serbia, and the German army violated Belgium neutrality, which pulled Britain into the continental war on behalf of France and Russia.
With those decisions, empires and monarchs would be swept away with new countries and new national identities forming in their place. The millions of dead, wounded, and displaced would number in the tens of millions. Eventually the United States entered the war -- my own great-grandfather, as well as my great-uncle went to Europe with thousands of other "doughboys" to fight -- and emerged as a world power, thus upending the old order even further.
The remnant of the forts at Liège following the German assault in August 1914. (Source: Wikipedia)
The causes of World War I are debated to this day -- Did German aggression start it? Is Serbia to blame? To what extent did Russia's politics play? -- but the aftermath of what happened remains to this day, and can still be found in how we think about living and working near cities.
Before the start of this year's centennial commemoration, I got my first glimpse of what the Great War means to us in our urban culture by reading Barbara W. Tuchman's classic tome on the origins of World War I, The Guns of August, which takes the reader through the complicated thought process that led to the conflict in August 1914.
Buried in the pages are very clear markings of some of the first encounters with urban warfare, where soldiers fought within cities and not out in wide open field and for the most part away from population centers as the continent had seen during previous conflicts, such as the Napoleonic Wars. At one point, Tuchman focuses on the siege of the Belgium fort town of Liège, which the Germany army had to cross to enter France. By doing so, Germany ignored Belgium's neutrality.
The Germans, figuring they'd received no resistance from the local population or what they called the "chocolate soldiers" of the Belgium army, were surprised to find themselves being fired upon. The combination of combat jitters and desire to move to France -- the real goal -- led to extreme retaliation on the citizens, which we unfortunately see today in so many conflicts. Tuchman writes:
On the first day too the Germans shot six hostages taken at the Warsage and burned the village of Battice as an example. It was "burned out, completely gutted," wrote a German officer who marched through it a few days later.
Later, when the Germans reached Liège itself, they turned to a new type of howitzer gun to level the forts surrounding the town, which were built by a Dutch military engineer known for his sturdy designs. These new and powerful weapons had never been seen before and shattered many illusions of what the war would be. "Ceilings fell in, galleries were blocked, fire, gas, and noise filled the underground chambers; men became 'hysterical, even mad in the awful apprehension of the next shot,' " Tuchman wrote.