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Armistice Day 2018 – After 100 Years

7 November 2018

On the 11th hour of the 11th day, on the 11th month in 2018, 100 years will have passed since the final shots of the First World War.

Across the world, ceremonies will take place remembering the sacrifices of the millions who boarded ships, planes, zeppelins, and carriages to leave their homes and loved ones for a front line from which they may never have returned. The pictures, poems, stories and photos we have inherited from those four years paint a picture of pure horror: of mechanised death, international suffering and the haunting gaze of shell-shocked young boys dressed as soldiers.

It is all too easy to reduce the First World War to our nation's perception of it and the most important battles which decided our war and how our history panned out. But the astonishing breadth and scope of the conflict can never, ever be overstated; this was the first true modern global war which involved countries from almost every continent, across a staggering number of fronts and campaigns. The title of World War was born in these trenches, on these battleships and on these frontiers.

What about the nationalities involved in the crushing Gallipoli Campaign, a period of the war that cost hundreds of thousands of deaths across multiple fronts from disease and conflict? Turkish troops, German troops, Indian troops, French forces, British forces, New Zealanders, Australians, Irish and Canadians all crashing into each other across the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is considered a victory for the Ottoman Empire in defending their capital Constantinople. In reality, thanks to the tragic loss of life and resources, this might as well have been a stalemate.

Then there's the Bulgaria-Serbia confrontation, a brutal war which came down to territory and stretched across a front of nearly 87 miles at its largest. Bad weather, muddy conditions and the high number of warring nations reduced the beautiful Balkans into a quagmire of ferocious fighting which ripped through the towns and villages, dragging Greece and other parties into the fray. In a conflict which likely has its roots in the first two Balkans wars, 37,000 Bulgarian lives were lost in 1915 alone, and a terrible 1,100,000 lives were lost across the entire Serbian campaign.

How about the Eastern Front, where nearly 250,000 Russians were killed in one year with a series of awful defeats led by incompetent men with fantasy dreams of military parades and obsolete glory? Where bitter winters, inept commanders and a new age of industrial murder contributed to some of the most gruesome fighting in the 20th century. The Eastern War and the fighting between Russia, Germany and Austria would claim as many as three million lives, - those are only the recorded statistics, it is likely that far more actually perished.

There's the lesser-known story of the Chinese policemen and labourers of the German-Chinese port of Tsingtao in China, forced to fight in a war which began in places they'd never seen, for an army they should never have been part of, against an enemy who they had no quarrel with. A punishing siege of Tsingtao from the Japanese and British saw these workers thrown into the conflict at the behest of German overlords, with 40 of them killed in conflict.

To the south, there were the Bedouin rebels across the Arab Peninsula who shook off the shackles of the mighty Ottoman Turks to fight one of the first modern Guerilla wars, standing up against the power of one of the largest empires ever known. Whose war was of freedom, whose bravery in the face of overwhelming odds provides one of the most compelling stories from the Great War, and whose battles were the backdrops for the legendary figures of Faisal I of Iraq and Lawrence of Arabia. 

Then came the Italian Arditi, stumbling across the white stone of the Dolomites, breaching the metal doors of enemy fortresses to confront foreign Austrian reflections of themselves, just as scared and just as desperate to sleep another night and to wake to another day. Whose travails under the motto of 'either victory or we all die' saw them face down a sea of bayonets and a porcupine of rifles across treacherous mountain paths and over cracked bracken.

And of course what about the countless civilian lives, lost to wars that rolled through their countries with the indifference of the new-fangled tanks of the first ever industrial war? Millions of innocent women, children, elderly and disabled had their lives destroyed, their homes decimated, their families wiped out, their liberty lost and their futures denied by brutalised belligerents and de-humanised soldiers. Their suffering cannot be overstated.

Finally, we've all heard of the most infamous battles of the war from a British, French, Belgian and German perspective. Those apocalyptic trench conflicts across the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres, whose meteoric shelling turned verdant fields into fiery black infernos and turned soldiers inspired by the bluster of nationalism into wandering ghosts. Where the young and old ascending the trench walls for the first time matched steps with those ascending them for the last time, as they climbed into a man-made, mechanical hellscape of green gas seas and thunderous gunfire.

100 years has now passed since the guns fell silent and the final shots rang out around the world. A lot can happen in 100 years but we will always remember and can never forget the events which took place between 1914-1918. Almost nothing has instilled humanity with as much of a sense of loss and of pointless death than the First World War, and perhaps never will.

An estimated 40 million soldiers and civilians were wounded or killed across those four years, making WWI one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history. From this, various treaties were agreed upon in response to the brutality of modern war but despite everything, another war with more parties and more casualties than any other would erupt. The Second World War would go on to claim the lives of over 60 million people and would also lay the stage for such atrocities as the Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre. It seemed like the world learned nothing.

And yet, the world is a safer and more peaceful place to be than ever before, today in the 21st century. Wars still rage around the world to this day; humanity may never change in that respect. But these days, we are more tolerant than ever before, we have better healthcare than ever before and better global unity, despite how things may seem in sensationalist news. And we have learned from these wars, with chemical warfare banned, new agreements made and nuclear weapons under more international scrutiny than ever.

So with that in mind, remember all those who fell for every side in the First World War, and every war before and since. Remember that without them, this world would be a very different place. Remember their sacrifice, their struggle, their terror, their suffering and their bravery.

Whether you choose to where a red poppy, a white poppy, a black poppy or a purple, remember those who strove for peace, liberty and freedom in the Great War, 1914-1918.