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The Guns of November

In the end, the guns fell silent at the appointed hour: 11 a.m. on the 11th of November, the 11th month of the year 1918. For four brutal years Europe -- and much of the rest of the world -- had been first drawn into and then fully involved in the most ferocious conflict in history up to that time. A war that began almost accidentally, with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Balkan backwater of Sarajevo, soon morphed into a domino-toppling series of alliances and ententes, from which no nation or empire emerged unscathed. Nineteenth-century battlefield tactics collided head on with the mechanized warfare of the 20th; millions of young men were blown to pieces, had limbs severed, were blinded, crippled, driven mad as they crouched in the trenches, waiting for the orders to go over the top, and charge into certain death for King, Kaiser, and Country.

When the war ended -- with an armistice, not a peace -- German troops were still occupying swaths of France. Romanov Russia, which had fought on the side of the British and the French, had cratered and, in a sequence of revolutions, had been delivered into Bolshevik hands. The Hapsburgs, too, would vanish, with Austria reduced to a rump province of what would become the Third Reich, and the Kingdom of Hungary losing two-thirds of its territory. The "Sick Man of Europe," the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had fought Russia on the side of the Germans and Austrians, was sundered and split up into some of the artificial states, like Iraq, which bedevil us yet today. Poland gained its independence from Russia, only to lose it again 21 years later, and thus occasion World War II.

Of the putative victors, Britain and France had both been bled dry, losing the cream of their young manhood to Big Bertha and her legions of bayonets and machine guns. Only the Americans, whose troops eventually turned the tide during the summer and fall of 1918, and who suffered significant casualties as well, emerged from the carnage as a bolder, stronger nation.

In other words, almost no good came out of the First World War. It was the greatest calamity in the history of Western civilization, a fratricidal conflict that made the American Civil War look like a mere warm-up for the Armageddon to come. From the time of the Greeks and Romans, warfare had been generally conducted on open fields, where the clash of two great armies would be settled in a day or two, one side triumphant, the other defeated, captured, or slaughtered to the last man. When sieges were necessary -- the Romans and, later, the Turks, conducted many -- cities were gradually surrounded and cut off from their supply lines as the besieging forces settled in to await the inevitable.