Remembering ‘the war to end all wars’

In five years we’ll mark the end of hostilities in the ‘the war to end all wars‘ for the 100th time. It’s a sobering irony not lost on the generations of soldiers and their families since 1918 that the Great War did not end war, but in fact kindled the fire that swept across Europe (and much of the rest of the world) some twenty years later.

I don’t think of my own family as having close ties with military history, but I have a Civil War veteran ancestor, my father served, my grandfather crossed the Atlantic to serve his country during World War II (in Africa before fighting in Lorraine), and my father-in-law was a career Navy pilot serving in two wars. Most Americans don’t remember the Lorraine Campaign like others considered more central to the conflict, but the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial is “the largest American World War II cemetery in Europe.” During World War I, my 3rd great grandfather in France lost 5 brothers in the trenches. Americans also may not appreciate the scale of losses in Europe during years of stubborn, senseless fighting: this wasn’t unusual for those living there at the time. Senseless: my great uncle entered battle with a metal breastplate and a lance, only to be gassed with chemical weaponry of an altogether different century than he was equipped for (it might have saved his life in that he convalesced in hospital rather than being ordered to the trenches that became the graves of so many others).

We also may forget the extent to which the First World War was fought outside Europe, in colonial East Africa (perhaps remembering the popular film African Queen more than historically important military leaders such as von Lettow), and by the many Africans who fought both in Africa and Europe (“An estimated 500,000 Africans were deployed in the French and British forces; some as labourers, others as fighting soldiers.”) The story of Paul Panda Farnana, a Congolese should be better known, too. He enlisted in Belgium and was imprisoned in camps with other Africans, which in fact created important ties that served him well after the war: “Panda Farnana was the only African invited to take part in the 1st National Colonial Congress of Brussels, destined to cure the wrongs inflicted upon the colony by the politics of Leopold II. He closely collaborated with the Afro-American W.E.B. DuBois in the organisation of the Pan-African Congress of Brussels in 1921.”

In the US, we mostly remember veterans on this day as having “served our country.” No doubt they have done so, as “all sacrificed some and some sacrificed all.” It is worth remembering, too, that without the service and sacrifice of many soldiers literally around the globe (as well as many other people who serve humanity in the name of peace and better living conditions) our world would be less free, a harsher and poorer place.

This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendering his forces to the British at Abercon (present-day Mbala) in Northern Rhodesia. By an anonymous African artist.

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