Today, one hundred years ago, the guns fell silent on the battlefields of the First World War. The killing stopped, the machine guns were muzzled, the barbed wire could rust, and all sides forged a peace that sowed the seeds of another even greater war just two decades later.
It’s hard to fathom the hell that soldiers endured in the trenches of the eastern and western fronts, mired in mud, soaked in blood, shaken to the core by the tumultuous thunder of artillery ripping soil to shreds and vaporising those beneath a shell’s trajectory.
Some ten million soldiers lost their lives in what now seems a fruitless campaign for yards gained or lost in an imperial quest brought about by a terrorist assassination and treaties of alignment. And it brought death to another seven million or so civilians in a conflict that was supposed to be a war to end all wars. Alas, if that were only to be true. It was a war too that set in motion the political divides today brought by lines secretly drawn in 1916 on the maps of British and French imperial generals, who carved up the Middle East and former Ottoman Empire lands as they were cake for the counts and countesses, not the countless who still suffer decades later.
The First World War showed us the capabilities of technology, advancing our boundaries not in cause of good but harnessed to bring death to as many as effectively as possible. It showed us that man can endure horrors for so long, that warfare of a global magnitude can happen, and that finding peace is fragile and fraught with long-term and unintended consequences.
It was a conflict that brought us the institutions, if flawed, of a League of Nations coming together to talk and negotiate in efforts to avoid such bloodletting. It was peace that warned us that while the victors take the spoils, the vanquished must be treated with respect and their grievances addressed.
As world leaders gather at the Menin Gate and a Last Post is sounded by a bugler to solemnly mark the Armistice a century ago, we remember those who served, who fell, and who are beholden now to ensure that a peace must endure between nations.
That peace must be built not on the flawed grandeur of empires and imperialism, nor on the ideologies of fascism and communism, overt capitalism, populism nor racism, but on the respect that we are all the same, made of blood and bone regardless of uniform, colour or creed. If we are genuinely concerned about the legacy of the millions who died in the first great war, the second, and all of the other conflicts that so divide us now, that is a reality we must wholly embrace.