Today marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the “Great War” meant to end all wars. My reflections below trace back the history of the war, the impact upon my family, and how we might learn from the past in a new era of uncertainty.
104 years ago, Serbian rebels dreaming of changed political boundaries assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. The initial response was muted, but three weeks later, Austria-Hungary responded forcefully by issuing an ultimatum to Serbia essentially threatening force if it did not bring the killers to justice.
Russia and Serbia were allied and as a precautionary move against the slim chance of a Russian entrance into the dispute, Austria-Hungary sought assurances from Germany that it would provide aid should Russia declare war on Austria-Hungary.
Serbia actually did respond in a conciliatory matter to Austria-Hungary, but it failed to appease Austria-Hungary and war was declared on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Russia, bound by treaty to come to Serbia’s aid, mobilized its army. Germany responded by declaring war on Russia. France, obligated by treaty to Russia, found itself at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany invaded Belgium to clear the path for a conquering of Paris.
Britain, citing a treaty obligating it to protect Belgium, declared war on Germany. The Empire was called upon, meaning Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa entered the foray to fight on the side of Britain. Attempting to pioneer the seas, the Germans began submarine warfare, openly sparring with Britain and France and also threatening the commercial interests of a neutral America.
On May 7, 1915, German submarines torpedoed the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Germany claimed it thought the civilian vessel was a military vessel carrying munitions. 128 Americans onboard perished and the U.S. would later use the incident as a justification to enter the conflict and declare war on Germany.
World War I would drag on till November 11, 1918, killing roughly 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. Over 20 million were wounded. The “war to end all wars” was hardly that – the world found itself embroiled in war again just two decades later.
100 Years Later
My grandfather, Charles Klint, was one of the “doughboys” who was drafted into service in World War I. He served bravely in France, though spent most of his tour of duty sitting knee-deep in water in the trenches of the Western Front. To be sure, the Great War was about more than trenches, but that was my grandfather’s story. And he never fully recovered from the war.
He returned to Chicago, married my grandmother, became a meat packer, and raised a family on the south side of Chicago. The affects of the war continued to haunt him. His health never fully returned and he died in 1947. My father was only seven years old at the time. How unimaginably hard that must have been.
According to baptism records and even his World War I draft card, Charles Klint was born Carl Gustaf Wilhelm Klint in 1894. His parents were immigrants from Sweden. Over the years, Gustaf was dropped and Carl Wilhelm anglicized to Charles William.
I never knew my grandfather, but my grandmother, who was born in 1898 and lived until 2006, never missed a beat in telling me what a remarkable man he was. And I don’t doubt it.
I am so thankful that my father has lived to see my grow up and hope to see my own son grow up as well. I’m also cognizant, especially as we reflect upon 100 years of armistice, that peace does come at great cost. That has become a trite line used by politicians, but how can we look at the 40 million casualties (including over 20 million deaths) that occurred during World War I and say anything else?
The “war to end all wars” became a just a naive catchphrase. War has continued to haunt humanity. It still rages today across swaths of this Earth. But rather than be crippled with despair, let us approach life in sober-minded, but determined manner. Let us appreciate the sacrifices that have been made and work diligently to safeguard the liberties which often come under attack in new forms by new actors.
I say it often, but change starts on a personal level. Traveling the world has opened my eyes to the beauty of the human family. It dispels prejudices and leads to greater understanding and appreciation that every person in this world, as an image bearer of the Creator, is worthy of dignity. We are called upon to love another and as imperfect as we may do that, it starts in the immediate space around us.
The world has changed dramatically over the last century, but in some ways nothing has changed at all. Life groans on. Let us never forget what World War I meant for the world. But let us daily resolve to seeks wisdom and reconciliation over folly and division.