The four years between 1914 and 1918 were, as Graham Wallas observed, “four years of the most intense and heroic effort the human race has ever made” (Human Nature in Politics – Third Edition , 1921). When that effort was spent, illusions and enthusiasms possible up to 1914 turned to massive disillusionment, an image not unlike the luxurious, class-conscious RMS Titanic, which sank just two years before. The only gain, if any, for humanity was a painful reminder of its own limitations.
“The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours, in wiping out so many lives which would have been operative on the years that followed, in destroying beliefs, changing ideas, and leaving incurable wounds of disillusion, it created a physical as well as psychological gulf between two epochs.” ( The Guns of August)
“The nineteenth century, the great age of European civilisation, was an edifice of grandeur and passion, of riches and beauty, but with dark cellars below. Its inhabitants lived, as compared to a later time, with more self-reliance, more confidence, more hope, more careless ease, but also hypocrisy, injustice and false sentiment” ( Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914)..
Looking back on that world, Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian poet, dedicated his work “With emotion, to the man I used to be”. Ninety-six years later, it is increasingly difficult to remember the pre-1914 world that used to be. Here is a reminder…
Historian Eric Hobsbawm agrees: “There has, since 1914, been a marked regression from the standards then regarded as normal in the developed countries . . . It is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our nineteenth-century ancestors would have called the standards of barbarism.” (Age of Extremes : The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991)
In the book The Generation of 1914 , Professor Robert Wohl observes: “Those who lived through the war could never rid themselves of the belief that one world had ended and another begun in August 1914.”
Referring to “the relatively peaceful and prosperous Victorian age of Great Britain,” he considered ‘the world he was born in’ to be one that would get “better and better” but “suddenly, unexpectedly, one morning in 1914 the whole thing came to an end.”- former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
“Thoughts and pictures come to my mind. . thoughts from before the year 1914 when there was real peace, quiet and security on this earth, a time when we didn’t know fear. . . Since 1914, the Germans have not known real peace nor has much of mankind, for security and quiet have disappeared from the lives of men”-. German statesman Konrad Adenauer
“It is indeed the year 1914 rather than that of Hiroshima (1945) which marks the turning point in our time.”—René Albrecht-Carrié, The Scientific Monthly, July 1951
“If you were born in 1894, as I was, you suddenly saw a great jagged crack in the looking-glass. After that your mind could not escape from the idea of a world that ended in 1914 and another one that began about 1919, with a wilderness of smoke and fury . . . lying between them.” author J. B. Priestley
“Ever since 1914, everybody conscious of trends in the world has been deeply troubled by what has seemed like a fated and predetermined march toward ever greater disaster. Many serious people have come to feel that nothing can be done to avert the plunge towards ruin.”—Bertrand Russell, The New York Times Magazine, 27/9/53.
” World War I tore the whole world’s political setup apart. Nothing could ever be the same again. . . . some historian in the next century may well conclude that the day the world went mad was August 4, 1914″ London Evening Star, quoted in New Orleans Times-Picayune, 5/8/60.
“The whole world really blew up about World War I and we still don’t know why. . . . Utopia was in sight. There was peace and prosperity. Then everything blew up. We’ve been in a state of suspended animation ever since.”—Dr. Walker Percy, American Medical News, 21/11/77.
“In 1914 the world lost a coherence which it has not managed to recapture since. . . . This has been a time of extraordinary disorder and violence, both across national frontiers and within them.”—The Economist, 4/8/79.
“Nobody expected World War I, It was a tremendous shock. People had been saying that the world had become too civilized for war. But world war came out of nowhere, like a bolt from the blue.” –George Hannan, born in 1899
“No one in Austria would have ventured to think that the 84 year old Emperor Franz Josef would have called on his people to fight without extreme necessity.. Ordinary men still felt a great respect for those in high places, and were sure of their insight and honesty.. When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security“ –Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday
“In World War I, for the first time in history, mankind came to know total war. Entire populations of the fighting nations worked in the war effort. Millions of men, women, and children were killed.”– The World Book Encyclopedia
“The war of 1914-1918 broke Europe’s waning self-confidence in the merits of its own civilization. Since it was fought between Christian nations, it weakened worldwide Christianity.”—Encyclopædia Britannica
Historian H. R. Trevor-Roper said: “It is instructive to compare the first World War with the second . . . the first war marked a far greater change in history. It closed a long era of general peace and began a new age of violence in which the second war is simply an episode. Since 1914 the world has had a new character: a character of international anarchy. . . . Thus it is the first World War marks the turning point in modern history” The New York Times Magazine, 1/8/54, p. 9
Regarding World War I, the book La Grande Guerre (The Great War), by General Richard Thoumin, published originally in France, says: “The blood and tears of the First World War changed the face of the earth.” The general also wrote:
“When in November 1918 the arms were laid down at last, ten million men had lost their lives, and twice that many had been wounded or crippled. Little wonder the conflict should be called the ‘Great War’. . .
“The unique ‘greatness’ of the First World War . . . was one of scope and numbers, of industrial output and material destruction. . . . Never before had so many countries and such large armies faced each other in such gigantic battles; never had such high proportions of combatants been killed or maimed; never had man gone to war with such powerful weapons.”
Who said WWI was “the war to end all wars“? During August 1914, immediately after the outbreak of the war, British author H. G. Wells published a number of articles in the London newspapers that subsequently appeared as a book entitled The War That Will End War. In later years, the term became associated with Woodrow Wilson, despite the fact that Wilson seemingly only used the phrase only once. Along with the phrase “make the world safe for democracy,” it embodied Wilson’s conviction that America’s entry into the war was necessary to preserve freedom.