Wed, 05 Jan 2000

World War I trenches mark frontier between centuries

By Tom Heneghan

VERDUN, France (Reuters): If there is a physical frontier between the 19th and the 20th centuries, it surely runs through the haunted trenches and artillery craters scarring the battlefields of World War I.

Like Europe's vanishing borders, the line gets harder to find with the years. At Verdun, site of some of the worst carnage, the blood-soaked furrows have long since been overgrown with grass, soft moss and cool pine trees.

It was in the muddy fields of Flanders and eastern France, though, that the Belle Epoque "world of yesterday" died and the most murderous century mankind has ever known began in earnest.

Devastating weapons, industrial-scale battlefield slaughter, nationalist hatreds, fascist movements and communist revolution -- these and many more blights on the century either had their roots in the Great War or were amplified by it.

In fact, many of the trademark trends of the past 100 years -- everything from abstract art to women's liberation, United States global power to the push for decolonization -- emerged during the century's turbulent second decade.

"We are living now and shall live all of our lives in a revolutionary world," the American commentator Walter Lippmann wrote prophetically in April 1917, a week after the United States entered the war.

"The world of yesterday is not that far away from us," noted the French historian Francois Furet shortly before his death in 1997. "But it has disappeared so completely that it has become almost unintelligible to a young man of today."

The fall of the old order that guaranteed relative stability during the expansive decades of the late 19th century began as early as 1911, when China's 267-year-old Manchu Dynasty was overthrown by the nationalist Kuomintang under Sun Yat-sen.

A year later, the First Balkan War drove Turkey out of most of southeastern Europe, signaling the looming end of the Ottoman Empire that dated back to the 1300s.

The 19th century faith in progress and industry was shaken badly in 1912 when the "unsinkable" ocean liner Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage with the loss of 1,513 lives.

All this paled by comparison once World War I, "the war to end all wars", broke out during the languid summer of 1914.

The start of the conflict -- the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the falling-domino declarations of war that followed -- heralded the end of the 19th century world of monarchs and balance-of-power alliances.

The cheery soldiers who kissed their loved ones goodbye that August expected a short, sharp war, like so many clashes in the decades before, and said they'd be home by Christmas.

Armies still had cavalry units with dashing hussars back then and infantrymen sporting shiny regimental badges on their helmets. The French marched off to war in smart red trousers.

One of the first highlights of the war -- the Paris taxis ferrying French troops to the Marne front in September 1914 to beat off German troops within sight of the Eiffel Tower -- still had the air of bravado associated with earlier wars.

That faded fast, however, as the western front dug in for the trench warfare that turned conscripts into corpses faster than the soldiers not yet dead could clear them away.

New technology such as poison gas, tanks, flame throwers and machine guns brought to warfare the industrial efficiency perfected in decades of dynamic economic growth before 1914.

"We ran head-on into machines wherever we went," one French soldier, Michel Lanson, wrote home from the front in 1915.

"We're not fighting man against man, it's man against machine. A barrage of choking gas and a dozen machine guns are all you need to annihilate an attacking regiment."

Two other new weapons, submarines and aircraft, began to assume the key role they play in modern warfare.

The biplanes were a rough-and-ready craft, so ill equipped for war that pilots first had to toss their bombs overboard by hand.

They gave birth to one of the few romantic legends of the war, the dogfights between aces like Germany's "Red Baron" Manfred von Richthofen and Eddie Rickenbacker of the United States.

Below them, though, infantrymen were dying by the thousands each day. Countries like Britain and France lost much of a generation of young men in the trenches.

When it was over, up to 10 million were dead -- a hitherto unimaginable toll for a continent that had lost only about 150,000 in its last major conflict, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.

The seemingly endless killing also sapped the authority of several governments, prompting the discontented to rise up while their rulers were bogged down in war elsewhere.

In 1916, Irish republicans in Dublin staged their Easter Rising against British rule. A few months later, led on by the British agent known as Lawrence of Arabia, Arab tribes revolted against Turkish domination in the Middle East.

Once again, local unrest was only a prelude to even greater upheaval. In November 1917, after months of turmoil following the abdication of Russia's Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin's Bolsheviks seized power and set out to change the face of world politics.

Preaching world revolution, the Soviet Union turned ideology and propaganda into potent political weapons in the era of mass communication that was just dawning.

Moscow's "dictatorship of the proletariat" was also the first of the many iron-fisted regimes -- communist, fascist, military or otherwise -- that also characterized the century.

"The October Revolution produced by far the most formidable organized revolutionary movement in modern history," said British historian Eric Hobsbawm. "Its global expansion has no parallel since the conquests of Islam in its first century."

By mid-century, one third of humanity lived under communist rule and the Soviet Union threatened the security of the half of Europe it did not already control.

Moscow's post-1945 superpower rival, the United States, also made its mark on the world scene in 1917.

"In hardly any other year in the century, with the exception of 1945 and 1990, were as many decisions made as in 1917," argued the German historian Eberhard Jaeckel.

"With Russia's revolutions and America's entry into the war began the rise of two powers that would dominate the world in the second half of the century. This also began Europe's descent from the predominance it had enjoyed since the 15th century."

Besides adding firepower for victory, Washington's entry into the war brought to Europe the mix of military strength and moralistic diplomacy that has been a hallmark of American foreign policy ever since.

Until the war, the United States tended to focus on its "own backyard," sending marines to keep order in Nicaragua in 1912 or opening the Panama Canal two years later.

Another historic decision of 1917 was the Balfour Declaration, the British pledge of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Israel was not born until 1948, after another world war and the Holocaust, and the region remains shaky to this day.

The war finally ended in November 1918 with the Central Powers collapsing into chaos and revolution.

The Ottoman Empire lost its Arab lands to British and French control while the Habsburg realm saw its component peoples -- Austrians, Hungarians, Czechoslovaks, Poles and Yugoslavs -- split to form their own independent states.

German sailors mutinied. Revolutionaries set up a short-lived soviet republic in Bavaria. After Kaiser Wilhelm II finally abdicated, Germany signed the armistice and the western front fell silent on Nov. 11.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, whose calls for "self- determination" had encouraged subject nations to break free, towered over the Paris peace negotiations that led to the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.

But for all his idealism, the treaty was deeply flawed.

By blaming Berlin solely for the war and exacting heavy reparations, it unleashed a resentment in Germany that a radicalized veteran of the trenches -- Adolf Hitler -- would later launch an ever more monstrous war to avenge.

It created a League of Nations that never really worked and approved the patchwork quilt of new states in Eastern Europe that each had as much ethnic tension as the Habsburg empire.

The most potent time bomb was in Serbia, where virulent nationalism -- of the type World War II extinguished in western Europe -- led to bloody wars with rebellious Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s.

Even those present in Versailles doubted it would contain Germany, as Wade Chance made clear in his report on the signing for the New York Herald: "The predatory Hun appeared in person to admit temporary interruption in his conquest of Europe."

In fact, the next war was only 20 years and one month away.

"Rather than creating a European peace, the treaties of 1919- 1920 amounted to a European revolution," Furet wrote. "They erased the history of the second half of the 19th century to the benefit of an abstract reshuffling of small multi-ethnic states."

The fall of the old order, the brutalization of politics and the revolutions sowing fear and unrest laid the foundation for fascist movements that would haunt Europe until 1945.

The war's effects were felt far from the gruesome trenches.

The conflict fanned nationalist flames in India, helping Mahatma Gandhi become a leading protest figure after colonial troops tried to crack down on anti-British unrest by massacring 379 Indians at Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh in 1919.

Japan, which had seized Korea in 1910, emerged from the peace conference with control of former German holdings in China and an appetite whetted for more.

The Paris talks inspired Ho Chi Minh to lobby the American delegation in vain to help Vietnam win independence from France.

"The First World War solved nothing," Hobsbawm wrote. "Such hopes as it generated...were soon disappointed. The past was beyond reach, the future postponed, the present bitter except for a few fleeting years in the mid-1920s."