The forgotten tragedies of the First World War
The Australian Infantry Honor Guard commemorate the First World War's Battle of Beersheba, the last successful cavalry charge in history. Credit: Uriel Sinai / Getty   

The news agenda is a strange thing. Some countries, some conflicts, command our attention; others, possibly of equal or greater significance, are all but ignored.

For instance, the Middle East has been front and centre of foreign affairs coverage for decades. The same cannot be said for most of sub-Saharan Africa. The Second Congo War, which raged from 1998 to 2003, was the deadliest conflict since the Second World War and yet barely entered our consciousness in the West. Even within the Middle East, our focus is weirdly uneven – with Syria topping the agenda, while the devastating conflict in Yemen hardly features.

Of course, there are reasons why we skew our attention. Reporting from overseas is expensive and often dangerous. Resources are limited and can’t be deployed in depth everywhere. And yet that’s not the whole explanation. There are journalists covering the forgotten conflicts of the world – often at great personal risk. Thanks to their dedication and bravery, we can, if we choose, inform ourselves. But the wider news agenda is something both more and less than the sum total of available journalism: more, because narratives are at least as important as facts in shaping our politics; less, because in crafting these narratives, the media simplifies – cutting ‘plotlines’ and dropping ‘characters’ that over-complicate the ‘story’.

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What applies to current affairs also applies to history. Despite the efforts of historians to challenge the mythologisation of the past, the same narrative impulses are at work in our culture – simplifying, symbolising, storifying.

It is a process of remembering – and forgetting – that applies to all of history, but which, I think, has especially skewed our perspective on the First World War. The images we have of trench warfare, in France and Belgium, are so powerful that much of what was, after all, a world war has disappeared into the mud of no man’s land. The life-grinding, near-immobility of the Western Front is the ultimate embodiment of the futility of war – an icon of horror that we find hard to see beyond.

And yet we must. For all that was suffered by the soldiers of the trenches, they were not the only victims of the First World War. There were many others and they deserve to be remembered too.

What follows is a far from exhaustive list of the other tragedies of the war to end war.

 

Serbia

Let’s begin at the beginning. Or at least, with the pretext for the war that the Austro-Hungarian empire and their German allies were looking for. Today we remember the actions of one (Bosnian) Serb, the nationalist Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28 June 1914. We’re less likely to remember the one million or so Serbs – combatants and civilian – who died in the war. That was roughly a quarter of the Serbian population, and a much greater proportion of the male population. Exact figures are hard to establish and estimates differ, but no other country suffered more in the First World War than the Kingdom of Serbia.

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Romania

There is so much else that could be said about the First World War in the Balkans – where the war started and, arguably, where it was won with the Allied victory on the Macedonian Front in 1918. There were hopes of a much earlier victory in 1916, when Romania entered the war against Austria-Hungary and Germany. It could have made all the difference – by completing the encirclement of the central powers and delivering a knock-out blow to Austria-Hungary via a push into Transylvania. Instead, Romanian troops found themselves on the back-foot and with collapse of their Russian allies in 1917, it was Romania that found itself surrounded – and forced to surrender.

In contrast to the stasis of the Western Front, the war in the east was much more mobile – fronts sweeping across entire nations, leaving a trail of corpses behind them. In less than two years of fighting, Romania lost an estimated 8% of its population – the worst losses of any country apart from Serbia.

 

Ottoman Empire

Actually, what I’ve just said isn’t quite correct. The death toll across the Ottoman Empire was even higher at over a tenth of the population – however, that includes what many countries recognise as the Armenian Genocide (together with massacres perpetrated against other ethnic minorities such as the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians) in which something like 1.5 million people perished. To this day, Turkish governments vehemently dispute the version of events widely accepted among holocaust scholars and officially recognised by 29 countries.

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The Alpine front

When we think of trench warfare, the images that come to mind are of the rain and mud of the Western Front – the poppy-strewn fields of northern France made a hell on Earth. However, the warring nations of Europe made another kind of hell for themselves across the mountainous border between Italy and Austria-Hungary. This was trench warfare amid breathtaking scenery and bitter cold. Around a million soldiers died along a front that also barely budged until the end of the war.

 

Dying for Europe

Why do we speak of the First World War as a world war and not a European war? Though by far the greater part of the fighting and slaughter took place on European soil, this was a war between global empires – and men from colonies and former colonies added their blood to that soil. From a British perspective, we remember the Anzacs and the ‘Doughboys‘, but a much wider range of peoples from every continent contributed troops. These were descendants not only of the ‘motherland’, but also of peoples that we had colonised and, in some cases, and not so many generations before, enslaved. And still they came to fight and die for us.

Thanks to efforts such as the Khadi Poppy initiative – which honours the 1.5 million Indians who served overseas in the war (and especially the 74,187 who died) – this part of our shared history is being properly remembered. Not before time.

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East Africa

As well as the world coming to fight in Europe; Europe exported its war to the world. We forget that before the First World War, Germany had established colonies in Africa and elsewhere – which, with the outbreak of war, came into conflict with neighbouring territories held by Britain, France and other allied nations. They were on the whole pointless, making little difference to the main theatres of the war – and yet they brought death and destruction to peoples who need never have been involved.

The most devastating of these conflicts centred on German East Africa (which, for the most part, is now Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi). British, Belgian and Portuguese forces engaged the Germans in a messy campaign of naval engagements, sporadic battles, raids and guerilla manoeuvres. Combat deaths were in the low tens of thousands, but many more African porters died of disease and other causes. And hundreds of thousands of civilians died in war related famines. The flu pandemic also reached sub-Saharan Africa by the end of the war, killing up to 2 million more.

 

The Middle East

The Middle Eastern theatre of the First World War raged across and within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, which in 1914 covered modern-day Turkey, the Levant, the Holy land, Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and large parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

From a western perspective, the Gallipoli campaign remains firmly lodged within our collective memory – the only major land campaign beyond the Western Front not to be edited out of our First World War ‘story’. There are vague recollections of Mesopotamia, and virtually none at all of Sinai and Palestine, Persia and the Caucasus. Altogether, more than a million soldiers died on all sides – and, as always, many, many more civilians in the lands ravaged by fighting.

Perhaps an even greater tragedy was to follow. With victory, the western powers were left in control of the now former Ottoman imperial possessions to the south of Turkey. The decision they made shaped and destabilised the Middle East as we know it today. There was the Sykes-Picot Agreement that drew artificial borders across the region; the Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne that left the Kurds without a state; and, of course, the origin of the oil politics that would leave Britain, France and, in time, America permanently entangled in the affairs of another civilisation.

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Asia and the Pacific

The Asia and Pacific theatre of the First World War is almost completely forgotten in the West. Indeed, many people might be surprised to hear there was one. They might also surprised to hear that there was a German Empire in the Pacific and a German base at Tsingtao in China. These were attacked by the Allied powers, most fell without bloodshed and overall casualties were low compared to the other theatres of the war.

What was significant is that the allied powers included Japan. For the second time, the Imperial Army and Navy prevailed over a European power (the first occasion being the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05). The Japanese took the opportunity to extend their influence in the region. The Western powers, who took the opportunity to extend their own empires were in no position to object. However, they could have done a lot more to accept Japan as an equal and bind it in to a permanent western alliance. Japan’s proposal of a racial equality amendment to the Versailles Treaty was a golden opportunity to do just that. But with stunning bigotry and lack of foresight it was rejected.

If Versailles put Germany on a dark trajectory towards the Second World War, one could argue it did the same to Japan.

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The war that didn’t end

The First World War ended a hundred years ago this month. Except that it didn’t. The Armistice brought an end to fighting between the great powers, but in the corners of the conflict, the slaughter continued. In Russia, the defeat of 1917 was followed by revolution, terror, civil war and more terror. The Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921, come close to snuffing out Polish independence, so recently regained. There were more than a 100,000 combat deaths and the worst anti-Jewish pogroms until the Second World War. Meanwhile, in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, there were tens of thousands combat deaths, followed by what is euphemistically described as a ‘population exchange’ that wiped out communities, indeed entire cultures, that had existed for centuries and, some cases, millennia.

 

The Spanish Flu Pandemic

Finally, I’d urge you to read Laura Spinney’s brilliant, sobering piece for UnHerd on the Spanish Flu Pandemic, that starting during the war, was spread by troop and civilian movements and continued into the aftermath. I remember being taught in school that it killed as many people as the war itself. The latest research indicates the toll was a multiple of the combat deaths.

Spinney asks why we have so few memorials to the very worst natural disaster in our history (albeit one exacerbated by human action). Perhaps we don’t want to be reminded of an enemy that is still out there – multiplying, mutating, waiting for the next time that we create the perfect conditions for catastrophe.

Further reading

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