November 1999

Reflections on Armistice Day




At 11 a.m. every November 11th, a simple commemoration is held at the Kranji War Memorial, just as other remembrance ceremonies are held at war memorials around the world. This year will be the 81st anniversary of the moment, 11 a.m., 11 November 1918, when a ceasefire came into being in Europe, bringing an end to the First World War. That war didn't really touch Singapore, except for a few German naval vessels, such the Emden, sailing a few times into our waters and making a nuisance of themselves. Anyway, it has been so long ago (how many of that generation are still alive?) that few know much about it. As the Senior Minister remarked recently, the commemoration is now little more than an empty ritual, and one wonders how long more it can continue.

It's a bit of a misnomer to call it the First World War, an appellation that wasn't coined until decades later, after the Second World War. At the time, it was called The Great War, but I think a more accurate description would be The Great European War. That was exactly what it was, but since many European countries at that time had overseas empires, other continents were affected one way or another by the tragedy in Europe. The casualty figures vary depending on your source, but around 10 million people died in battle. Others died from genocide, such as when the Turks exterminated the Armenian minority in their Ottoman Empire. Then there was a terrible influenza epidemic that killed perhaps 20 million people, easily spread through the distress and poverty that came with war.

Despite such horrific numbers, time and physical distance has meant that few Singaporeans now give any thought to the conflict. We can't see the connection between that war and us today. Yet that cannot be. No tragedy of such a scale can be without consequences, and in fact, much of the landscape of the 20th century which we take for granted, or which form the backdrop of world events today, stem from The Great European War. It profoundly changed the world, not just militarily, but in politics and social conditions too. I shall touch on a few aspects here.

The war became inevitable when on 28 June 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial crown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated. The killer was a wild Serbian nationalist, and the place was Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia. (Mention of Serbia and Bosnia might lead some readers to say, Oh God! it's still continuing!)

Austria moved to punish Serbia. Russia moved to defend their fellow Slavs in Serbia; the German Empire readied to help Austria against the Russians. The British and the French, tied to Russia through a pact called The Triple Entente, moved against Germany. The Turks, unhappy with British and French encroachments on their Middle-eastern empire and their province of Egypt, threatened by Russia's intentions to control the Bosphorus, took the opportunity to go on the offensive against them. And within months, almost all Europe had been plunged into war.

It was a different kind of Europe then. Most countries were monarchies, and the kings and emperors often had real power. Class and noble birth meant something -- a lot -- but many royal families were related. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and King George V of Britain were all cousins to each other.

Yet industrialisation had already brought mass transport and the means to wage total war, that is, war not just fought on the frontlines, but against the civilian homeland, the industrial capacity and the shipping lanes that kept the enemy's economy going. With their empires, the combatants could also bring huge resources to bear on the conflict, ensuring a costly, long-drawn-out struggle.

That it was a stalemate for many years was crippling to the countries involved. At first, jingoism rallied millions of young men, often the educated ones, to enlist. Yet military strategy was in the hands of dodgy upper-class gentlemen, who thought in terms of bravery, duty, honour, sacrifice, God, King and Country. The Russian army at one point had just one rifle to six men and even fewer winter coats. The British generals thought it grand to make an amphibious assault on a tiny beach overlooked by the cliffs of Gallipoli, where the Turkish defenders were well entrenched. In France, half a million soldiers (on both sides) died fighting over 5 miles of sodden mud in the Battle of Passchendaele.

With such casualty numbers, Britain soon had to ask its colonies to contribute men and materiel. Australians, Canadians, even Indians from Bengal and the Punjab, were shipped to North Africa and Europe. Where they were slaughtered just as efficiently.

Meanwhile, industrial output to support the armies in the field had to be increased manifold. Yet, men were in short supply. So women were brought into the factories and became an essential part of the war effort.

And still the war went on, bleeding away the lifeblood of Europe. Desperate to strike a final blow, each country extended their methods further and further afield. Britain had its Lawrence of Arabia to rouse the Saudis to break free from the Turks. The Germans waged unrestricted submarine war against British shipping, and then against any shipping that sailed to Britain. The latter was a mistake, for when American vessels were attacked, the USA was dragged into the fight. Washington declared war on Germany in April 1917.

As usual -- and it's still the case -- it took the Americans an excruciatingly long while to mobilise themselves for war. But when they finally did, in 1918, their numbers and industrial might so tilted the balance that by November the same year, the war was at last, over.

However, by then the damage, in a much wider sense than anyone could predict, had been done. The world would never be the same again.

The ruling classes of Europe, including the royal families, were so discreditted by the mess they made, more accurately, the mass murder they wrought, that no one would ever again accord them the "right to rule". The Kaiser of Germany was overthrown. The Hapsburgs of Vienna saw their Austro-Hungarian Empire broken up into the Central European states that we recognise today: e.g. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia Two revolutions broke out in Russia in 1917, and the Czar and his family were machine-gunned by the Bolsheviks. The upper classes who commanded the field armies so incompetently would never be trusted again. In any case, many of their sons had volunteered for the glory of war, and had died like so much cannon fodder in the trenches. The class structure that underpinned European society for so long was destroyed forever. The final nail in the coffin was that it was the Americans -- that bastion of republicanism -- who had to come in to save Europe from itself.

The effects of this we see today. Few nowadays would praise a class-stratified society, that had been the norm in the 19th century and for millennia before that. Egalitarianism became the guiding principle of the 20th century, if not outright socialism and communism. Monarchies are out of favour; if a country has any self-respect, it has to be a republic.

Another "right to rule" was also undermined by The Great European War: the right of Europeans to rule other peoples. Amongst the colonials, especially the brown-skinned ones, it set liberating thoughts in train when the Europeans had to appeal to them to come help in their dispute. Why should we die for these arrogant fools in the mud of Flanders?

In any case, France, Britain, Holland, were so exhausted by the war, they didn't have the resources to exert themselves afterwards in Asia and Africa. As independence movements germinated, they were too weary to reimpose their rule. And the United States, which so helped Britain and France prevail in Europe, was no help elsewhere. Woodrow Wilson's tenet of self-determination was first used to free up the Czechs, Poles, Estonians and others in Europe, but it was an ideal that fired the dream of an independent India, Vietnam, Indonesia and so many other countries we take for granted today.

That ideal continues to appeal. The Kosovars don't want to be ruled by the Serbs, the Kurds don't want to be ruled by the Turks, the Achehnese don't want the Javanese lording over them. Half the conflicts we still see and bleed from today, can be traced to disputes about self-determination.

And then there were the women, who after a taste of responsibility in the factories, could not stomach being shoehorned into domestic invisibility again. Why should men have a right to rule over women? Why shouldn't women have a vote, when they too had a role to defend the country? And so the equal rights debate was born, a debate that has widened, first to racial minorities, then to sexual minorities. Why should heterosexuals have any right to set the agenda for gay people, and to reserve privileges like marriage, tax benefits, pensions, and inheritance to themselves?

All these issues -- the rights of governments to rule, the powers of national capitals over far-flung territories, equality for minorities -- are issues that make much of the news today. The cataclysm of The Great European War made us conscious of them, and set the social and political framework for the generations that followed. Yet it is a sobering thought that the biggest lesson of all, we have yet to learn; the killing continues. These famous words of the young poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) about death in the trenches of France (he himself was killed on the frontlines a few days before the armistice) can still apply to any number of conflicts raging around us even as we speak:

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
                    -- Anthem for Doomed Youth, st 1

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