The long echo of the guns
Last updated 11/14/2023 at 12:26pm
Last week, Sisters marked Veterans Day observances, Americans’ annual opportunity to honor those who have served the country in our armed forces. Sisters students met with veterans and celebrated their service in assemblies (see “Roundabout Sisters,” page 3). Bend hosted its always-impressive Veterans Day Parade on Saturday, November 11.
What Americans know as Veterans Day grew out of solemn observations of Armistice Day, marking the moment when the guns fell silent on the Western Front of World War I, where Great Britain, France, and Russia — and, after 1917 the United States — had battled Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire from 1914 to 1918 in a titanic and apparently endless slaughter. Untold millions had died, empires crashed in a welter of blood and revolution, and the map of Europe and the Middle East would be redrawn.
In a single moment — the 11th hour of the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918 — the cataclysm of the Great War was over. Statesmen assured their exhausted, shell-shocked populations that it had been “the war to end all wars.” It was not that. In fact, the treaties and agreements that established a new world order from 1919 to 1922 created what historian David Fromkin called “a peace to end all peace.”
The two great and gruesome conflicts of 2023 have their roots in the bloody soil of the First World War.
Ukraine did not exist as a nation in 1914. Its territory was divided between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire. Those two tottering and militarily inept powers cast away millions of soldiers’ lives fighting over it. Ukrainians fought and died in both armies. When the Communist Bolsheviks took power in the Russian Revolution, Ukraine became a key theater in the Russian Civil War, a conflict of almost unimaginable savagery. Ukrainian nationalists sought to create a state, anarchists fought for local control, but they were ultimately overwhelmed by the Red Army. Some 1.5 million people died in the fighting.
The Versailles Treaty that created the post-World War I “settlement” divvied up Ukrainian territory, a little to the new nations of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and the majority left to the tender mercies of the new Soviet Union. Ukraine would be a bloody battleground again in World War II, rolled over by the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich, retaken by the Red Army. In 1941, Ukraine would be the site of a massive two-day Nazi killing of Jews, where 33,771 were gunned down in the “Holocaust of Bullets” in a ravine in Kyiv called Babi Yar.
Ukraininan national aspirations would rise again after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but Russian hardliners have never accepted Ukraine as an independent entity. And now it has become a bloodland again, invaded by its ancient nemesis as Vladimir Putin attempts to reassert Russian dominance.
The terrible and apparently intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is even more clearly traceable to the great power machinations of the First World War. Great Britain in particular made a series of incompatible promises to different peoples, and promulgated a deeply cynical backroom deal, all in an effort to topple the Ottoman Empire and to gain control of chunks of its territory and assets after the war.
World War I was a desperate conflict, consuming blood and treasure at a pace and scale never before seen in human history. By 1915-16, it was locked in a stalemate in the trenches that stretched north-to-south across western Europe. Britain hoped to break the stalemate by rolling up the flank of the Central Powers — by attacking the apparently vulnerable Ottoman Empire, which had been in decline for the past 200 years. The Ottomans ruled all the lands we think of as the Middle East.
One way to undermine the Ottomans was to foment a revolt among its Arab subjects. Nationalism, which was on the rise across the globe from the mid-19th century on, had reached the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula and the Fertile Crescent. There were rumblings of efforts to throw off the Turkish Ottoman domination they had lived under for 500 years. To trigger an Arab revolt, the British held out to Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of Mecca, the promise of support for a new Arab state, led by his family.
The Arab Revolt kicked off in 1916, under the leadership of Hussein’s son Faisal. It was a guerrilla war run conjunction with a conventional British military campaign. This was the theater of war where T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — gained his fame. Lawrence, at great cost to his soul, recognized that the British had no intention of honoring their promise and establishing a single unified Arab state. Even before the revolt got underway, British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois Picot had hammered out a carve-up of the territory the allies would win in the war.
Another player was introduced to the great powers’ chessboard in 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, a public letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild stating that:
“His Majesty’s Gover-nment view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Jewish nationalism, too, had been on the rise, taking the form of Zionism — the movement to create a Jewish homeland in the ancient lands of Palestine. Just as with the promise of Arab statehood, the Balfour Declaration was a wartime expedient, designed to mobilize Jewish opinion — especially in the United States — behind Britain’s war effort. Britain didn’t really concern themselves with squaring the circle of creating a Jewish national home in Palestine without prejudicing the rights of the Arab population living there.
The declaration was issued just as British troops broke through Ottoman defenses and moved into Palestine. In 1918, they would push into Syria and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.
Britain and France wound up with a “mandate” from the newly formed League of Nations to govern Syria and Lebanon (France) and Palestine, Transjordan and part of Iraq (Great Britain). The two great powers stiffed the Arabs. Faisal ended up being fobbed off with a throne in Iraq, while his Hashemite family had to suffer the indignity of seeing most of the Arabian Peninsula conquered by Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, whose oil-rich House of Saud rules the land to this day.
Taking the Empire at its word, Jews began immigrating in greater numbers into Palestine.
The Palestinian Arabs resisted this immigration, rising in revolt against the British Mandate in 1936-39. In World War II, the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini supported Hitler, declaring that they had the same enemies, “the English, the Jews, and the Communists.”
In the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 to divide Great Britain’s former Palestinian mandate into Jewish and Arab states in May 1948, when the British mandate was scheduled to end.
The Palestinians and the Arab States that had themselves recently come to independence rejected partition, and went to war against the new state — a war that has never truly ended.
The explosions of rockets and bombs in Israel and Gaza in November 2023 are the long echo of the guns of the great cataclysm of the age — the First World War.