Dark Shadow of the Great War; Tomorrow Marks 100 Years since Europe Plunged into the War to End All Wars. but as This Brilliant Analysis Argues, We Are Still Living with Its Appalling Legacy: In Ukraine, Gaza - and an Agonisingly Uncertain Future
Byline: SIMON HEFFER HISTORIAN AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR
EXACTLY 100 years ago tomorrow, Britain stumbled into a war that would change the face not just of this country but of the whole of Europe, for ever.
Its consequences would spread far beyond the continent where it was fought, initiating almost a century of upheaval, revolution, bloodshed and conflict unimaginable to the Britons who cheered when we decided to fight the Kaiser on August 4, 1914.
It is no exaggeration to say that the effects of the Great War are still being felt. It isn't just that so many families remember great uncles or grandparents or greatgrandparents who lie in what Rupert Brooke called 'some corner of a foreign field'.
The conflict in Ukraine and the bloody wars in Syria, Iraq and Gaza all have their roots in a war that destroyed the empires that constituted the old world order, and which began a century ago almost to the day.
Ukraine's troubles were born from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and the horrors of the Middle East from the fall of the Ottoman Empire. These two conflicts have conspired to make the world more dangerous than since the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s, and are direct legacies of the bloodbath which the nation commemorates the centenary of tomorrow.
The Great War threw history off its supposed course of progress and enlightenment. It recalibrated the world. It destroyed empires, undermined the power of those who survived, fomented revolutions, broke class systems and social orders, and created a new superpower in the shape of America.
It also sowed the seeds of totalitarianism, causing an even more murderous war 20 years later, and divisions between east and west that remain painfully apparent today.
Britain, by comparison, got off lightly, but its own balance sheet is grim enough. Around 8.7million men served in the British Army between 1914 and 1918 - about five million were from Britain itself, with 1.5million from India, and large contingents from Canada, Australia and the other dominions. An estimated 956,000 died, 565,000 of those in France and Flanders.
Around 705,000 of the dead were from the British Isles, their deaths creating a culture of mass bereavement unknown since the Black Death in the 14th Century. Beyond the loss and desolation inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of families, there were numerous social effects, such as an epidemic of juvenile delinquency in 1917-18 caused by the loss or absence of fathers, and an army of spinsters in the 1920s.
In 1917, the headmistress of Bournemouth Girls' High School told her sixth form: 'I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry.
'This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can.' It was estimated that directly after the war there were around two million more single women of marriageable age than men capable of marrying them - not just because of death, but because of the crippling wounds of countless survivors.
RELIGION found itself undermined. Men who returned from the trenches abandoned Christianity as a joke. The spiritualist movement embraced the widows and bereaved parents of the dead in an act of wholesale charlatanry unseen in Britain since the witches and necromancers of the Middle Ages.
An army of mediums and fakirs queued up to take the money of the distraught and gullible as they tried to send and receive messages to and from their lost husbands and sons.
One of the leaders of this movement, and entirely taken in by it, was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose son and brother both died in the flu epidemic of 1918-19.
And the rest of culture resonated with the bitter aftertaste of war. Modern art became aggressive, hollow, ugly and nihilistic. …