NOVEMBER 12, 2018, RAF Lekenheath, England – For American Airmen, and the U.S. Air Force organizationally, the First World War holds a certain element of romanticism. In the heritage lessons every Airman receives during training, World War I means the birth of airpower as a strategic instrument of warfare. It means dogfights and heroics, the victorious fighter ace popping a gentlemanly salute to his defeated opponent, who has bailed out of his burning plane and is peacefully parachuting down to earth.
The Great War is its “Legends of Airpower”: the Red Baron, Rene Fonck, and, most important of all, Eddie Rickenbacker, with his Medal of Honor and all-American smile. It is technical discussions of Sopwith Camels, Fokkers, machine gun synchronization gears, and the early development of aerial reconnaissance and strategic bombing. Considering the Royal Air Force’s establishment as the world’s first independent air military service branch near the end of the war in April 1918, there may also, perhaps, be an underlying jealousy in our heritage studies that the British (with characteristic foresight) beat us to the punch in the Air Force race by 30 years.
What can be easily lost in our U.S. Air Force reflections, however, is that there is much more to learn from World War I than the early history of air warfare. And there are few better places to reflect on the lessons of the Great War than here in the United Kingdom—a nation in which a WWI memorial adorns nearly every public square or park, and in which the number of citizens wearing “remembrance poppies” in the months leading up to November turns every city street into a veritable bouquet of bobbing red flowers.
This year, particularly, provides us with a special cause for reflection: 2018 marks not only the centenary of the founding of the Royal Air Force, but, much more importantly, the centenary of the Armistice that brought the Great War to a close. As we look back on the war from a one-hundred-year vantage point, what was—and is—its significance for Great Britain? What were its lessons, and why does it matter to us today?
As the Armistice went into effect on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” 1918, the U.S., Great Britain, France, and their associated allied nations could celebrate a victorious end to a conflict that, up to that time, had been the most grueling and deadly in the history of the world. While the joy of the Great War’s end might have been equally shared among the Allies, the costs had certainly not been equal. The U.S. had only entered the war in April 1917, and the “Doughboys” of the American Expeditionary Forces didn’t fire a shot in anger until much later that year. Many of the most blood-drenched episodes of the war—the desperate turning point of the First Battle of the Marne, the costly failure of Gallipoli, the grinding slaughter of the Somme and Verdun, and the mud-drenched horror of Passchendaele—took place either before the U.S. had declared war on the Central Powers or before American forces had arrived on the battlefields of the Western Front.
For we Americans, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend the indelible mark the First World War left on the British consciousness. In many ways, and certainly in popular culture, World War II looms larger in the American psyche—the “great crusade” against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan fitting more neatly into a mythologized struggle of good against evil than the earlier fight against the Kaiser.
But for Britain, and, indeed, for all the nations of Europe, the Great War was a lasting trauma. To borrow German author Ernst Jünger’s description of a 1916 battlefield near St Eloi, France, the geographic and psychological landscape of post-WWI Europe “was dark and fantastic, the war had erased anything attractive or appealing from the scene, and etched its own brazen features, to appall the lonely onlooker.”
The entire world order that had existed since the mid-1800s was unraveling. One great power (Russia) had imploded during the war; others (Great Britain, France, and Austria-Hungary) had been bled white; and the “Sick Man of Europe” (the Ottoman Empire) had finally expired. Swathes of Europe lay in ruins, and the map of the world was being redrawn.
Great Britain, victorious and largely spared the physical ravages of bombardment, gas-attacks, and trench-warfare, found the war etched on its territory in a different way: thousands upon thousands of memorials sprang up to honor its dead. And they were legion. By the war’s end, Great Britain had suffered over 2.6 million casualties, over ten times those of the U.S. in a nation with less than half the U.S.’s total population. The death toll was stark, affecting all classes of society throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. To return to comparisons with World War II, it may come as a surprise (especially given the apocalyptic nature of the later conflict) that the British death toll in World War I was over double that of World War II.
It can be little wonder, then, that in Great Britain and the Commonwealth Nations the eleventh of November was and remains “Remembrance Day.” Honoring and remembering the fallen of the war became an annual tradition on the first anniversary of the Armistice. The annual wearing of the red poppy—a solemn, under-stated, and individual act of remembrance—and the laying of poppy-wreaths at Britain’s memorials (many of which, themselves, have the ability to deeply move and even disturb their onlookers with a glance) are the powerful traditions that have grown out of this annual day of reflection.
Honoring the fallen, however, is only the most obvious and significant act of remembrance. As we consider the Great War and its lessons with the advantage of one hundred years of hindsight, there is much to remember and much that we forget at our own peril. Among the War’s significant lessons is one of profound significance to the U.S. military in general and the Air Force in particular: the effects of rapidly changing technology on the global battlefield. It has become a cliché to say that generals are “always fighting the last war,” but World War I demonstrated, on a grand and gristly scale, the consequences of generals fighting wars they did not, and could not, understand. As C.S. Forester acidly observed in The General, his novel depicting the life of a general officer during the war, the British high command, with millions of soldiers at their disposal and employing tactics/strategy largely unchanged since the Napoleonic wars (but with more effective and deadly artillery), “could hardly be blamed for ignoring the minor details of machine guns and barbed wire.”
The invention of machine guns, the airplane, and armored vehicles necessitated radical changes in the way battles were fought—but those changes were only developed at the cost of untold lives and a great deal of destruction. It is a grim historical lesson that should be ever-present in our minds, and one that, thankfully, many of our U.S. Air Force leaders strive to remember. For instance, our own Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, Air Education and Training Command commander, frequently challenges Air Force audiences to seek out the “cavalry horses” of our age, the outmoded equipment and strategies that have been made obsolete by the progression of technology.
On a global scale, we must remember we continue to live in a world shaped, directly and indirectly, by the First World War The war marked the beginning of the U.S.’ rise as a global power, and, with the post-war formation of President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, inaugurated the concept of promoting peace and world order through the use of international, intergovernmental organizations. The implosion of Imperial Russia led to the triumph of Bolshevik communism and the formation of the Soviet Union. The purges, the Gulag, the Cold War, and the U.S.’ continuing great power rivalry with Russia would follow.
Meanwhile, British and French imperial designs in the territories ripped from the Ottoman Empire fragmented the Middle East, redrawing the map of that region in ways that continue to have dramatic effects on the world today. The punitive peace imposed on Germany after the Armistice sowed the seeds for the rise of Nazism and the horrors of the Second World War Indeed, so great was the sense of indignity associated with Germany’s 1918 defeat, that when France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, Adolph Hitler forced the French to capitulate in Compiègne—in the very railway car in which the 1918 Armistice had been signed.
The entire post-1945 international order traces its roots to World War I and the Armistice, and it is not difficult to map the progression from the Great War, through the Russian Revolution and post-WWII Soviet expansion, to the 1980s Afghan-Soviet War and, from there, to the formation of al-Qaeda, the attacks of 9/11, and our current conflict in Afghanistan.
As we consider the legacy of World War I and the Armistice, all of these facets—our own heritage as an organization dedicated to flying, fighting, and winning in the domains of air, space, and cyberspace; the effects of the war on our allies; the millions of honored dead; the lessons of shifting strategy, changing technology, and adaptation; and the irreversible global consequences of the conflict—are worthy of remembrance. The war, in its own way, has been like the beginning of a long flight, the original take-off of a massive, world altering engine.
As we mark a century after the Armistice and remember the Great War in all its facets, we must never forget that the journey is not over yet. The events set in motion by World War I continue to this day; the plane, so to speak, remains in the air. In the words of the British war poet Lessell Hutcheon, “the Lord alone knows where we’re going to land.”
Story by Master Sgt. Eric Burks
48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs