While it may be remembered as “The Great War”, World War I had little about it that many would remember as “great”. Millions of lives were lost in what, to the common person, could be seen as little more than a dispute amongst royal family members. On Remembrance Day, we don’t think about the causes or the outcomes of the war, we remember the fallen who gave, and continue to give their lives in conflicts around the world.
It’s probably been a while since most of us cracked a history textbook. Nonetheless, many of us may remember the lessons we learned about WWI, notably how it started. The powder keg exploded when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was killed in Serbia. That (among a complex web of political connections) is what set the world ablaze with war. But perhaps what’s less well remembered are the circumstances that brought the conflict to a close.
We observe Remembrance Day each November 11th – and pause for a moment of silence at 11:11am when the armistice that ended the war was officially signed. But how, after years of war, was peace finally achieved?
The Lead-up to the End of the War
For much of the War, a fierce stalemate was maintained, with battle lines (and trenches) being drawn across central Europe. On one side, Britain, France and Italy held against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Each had numerous smaller allies, and some countries, like Spain, remained neutral.
With never-before-seen weapons like machine guns and the excessive use of artillery, the old ways of fighting, lining up on a battlefield to face your foe, were long gone. This meant that the war was fought slowly and from trenches, with each side gaining little ground. Massive battles were fought with hundreds of thousands dead, to gain a few hundred meters of ground.
In 1917, after three years of fighting, the tide of the war turned in a big way – the United States joined the conflict. While they were green and untrained compared to the elite Canadian forces who famously captured Vimy Ridge, the Americans brought with them fuel, food, munitions and the vast resources of their country. With supplies running short all across Europe, the American entry into the war broke the morale of the Axis powers and gave the Allies a necessary advantage.
Eventually, Kaiser Wilhelm, emperor of Germany, abdicated the throne, to be replaced by a Chancellor named Freidrich Ebert. This set the stage for the end of The Great War.
The Eleventh Minute of the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Month
It’s no coincidence Remembrance Day is commemorated on Nov. 11 – and the moment of silence takes place at 11:11am. This is precisely the moment the guns fell silent, after Chancellor Ebert officially petitioned the Allies for an Armistice.
While this marked the end of violent conflict, it wasn’t the official end of the war. That occurred several months later on June 28th, 1919 with the signing of The Treaty of Versailles. Signed at the palace for which the document is named, the Treaty of Versailles outlined the conditions for peace that would be required to officially cease hostilities.
It was deeply punitive – Germany and its allies were prohibited from negotiating terms of the treaty. This meant that it included what’s become known as “the war guilt” clause which effectively forced Germany and Austro-Hungary to take the entire blame for the cause of the war. In effect, it stripped Germany and its allies of land, a standing military and incurred enormous reparation payments that deeply impacted its economy.
As you might imagine, The Treaty of Versailles remains controversial to this day. While it was instrumental in ending The Great War, it nonetheless set the stage for the rise of facism in Europe, and may have directly contributed to World War II. It serves as a good reminder that mercy in victory is often wise.
Canada’s Seat at the Table
At the time of World War I, Canada was still “The Dominion of Canada” – basically still under the indirect control of British Rule. In fact, when war was declared by Britain, Canada and the rest of the Dominions were by default at war as members of the British Empire.
In 1914 Canada was considered a small, not-particularly-significant part of the war effort. But by the time fighting ceased, Canadians were regarded as having made some of the most integral contributions to the war effort. From pioneering artillery techniques, to capturing Vimy Ridge, to holding the line at Ypres when other nations fled, Canada had proven itself an essential part of ending the war.
When the Treaty of Versailles was being arranged, no Dominions were invited to participate. In fact, the United States openly insisted none participate, arguing that they would merely amplify Britain’s voice unfairly. That didn’t sit well with Canada’s Prime Minister Robert Borden, who pointed to the contributions our country had, and demanded a seat at the table for the signing of the Treaty. Ultimately, in consideration of Canada’s role, Dominions were allowed to join the process, and Canada’s signature appears on the Treaty (albeit, indented underneath Britains).
A Day for Remembrance
Now, we remember more than just World War I on Remembrance Day. We turn our minds to all conflicts, and the people who lost their lives in them. The world breathed a sigh of relief when the horrors of WWI ceased – hopefully it will continue to serve as a reminder about the horrors of war that should be avoided at all cost.