One Hundred Years Since World War One: Modern Trench Warfare?

December 4, 2018

A few weeks after the centenary of the Armistice which ended World War One, it seems a reasonable time to ask just how much the world has changed since. With the outbreak of the Second World War taking place only twenty-one years after the conclusion of the ‘war to end all wars’, it also appears sensible to remain sceptical in regards to the impact of the lessons the international community was supposed to have learned. If such experiences could only shift the course of international relations towards peace for little over two decades, is it possible for their influence to prevail for a hundred?

General opinion prevails that Armistice Day is dedicated to the memory of those lost in the two World Wars, but organisations such as the Royal British Legion take this sentiment further. The Royal British Legion reflects that the memory of the Armistice should also be observed out of respect to ‘the more than 12,000 British Servicemen and women killed or injured since 1945’. This sentiment draws attention to a key issue: the continuation of armed conflict since the end of both World Wars, thus suggesting that the lessons they provided were never fully embraced.

If ‘the war to end all wars’ could only shift the course of international relations towards peace for little over two decades, is it possible for its influence to prevail for a hundred?

A proportion of the 12,000 individuals identified are accounted for through British involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Six years of British involvement in Iraq led to the loss of 179 lives and military operations in Afghanistan led to the loss of 456lives which true observation of the Armistice’s implications should never have endangered. The continued existence and creation of death tolls as the result of international conflict suggests that a fundamental error has been made in an analysis of what warnings may be taken from the World Wars. They risk the dismissal of the common thought associated with Armistice Day – that the wars should never have taken place and that history should not repeat itself – as mere empty words.

However, the accuracy behind this allegation is dependent on the very nature of what it is the international community wishes to avoid. Should the wish be to prevent further mass conscription and trench warfare, general efforts may be applauded.  Yet the waging of a Cold War through the latter half of the twentieth century illustrates how the very form of conflict has evolved. The Cold War marked the dawn of an era of physical combat that did not touch the lives of all, but select countries, as in the cases of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This idea represents how the notion of avoiding war is associated with conflict in the manner of the First and Second World Wars and trench warfare – not with its modern form. Although the nature and the means of war themselves have developed since the signing of the Armistice, public perception of conflict appears firmly rooted in the past.

Although the nature and the means of war themselves have developed since the signing of the Armistice, public perception of conflict appears firmly rooted in the past.

A key consideration in avoiding war is the state of international relations themselves, which may be summarised by an analysis of the political figures present at Remembrance Day services. At The Cenotaph in Whitehall, Theresa May was to be found, who is currently embroiled in Brexit negotiations, which are not only viewed as weakening the international community, but are also perceived by many as having xenophobic undertones. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, whose election campaign included a promise to construct a wall between the United States and Mexico, attended a service in Paris, leading many to speak of a time of populist politics that capitalises on international unrest.

The close associations between these two world leaders and tumultuous international relations suggests that in the same manner as the wish to avoid deaths caused by war, international politics has not learnt from the errors of the past to try and maintain peace and cooperation. Furthermore, the populism that is seen to fuel both Brexit and the policies of Trump also indicates that it is not simply world leaders, but also the general public themselves who do not retain the reflections of Remembrance Day all year round.

One hundred years on from the Armistice it is obvious to observe that present tensions within international relations remain high and armed conflicts still continue, but as they are not dressed in the uniform of the First World War, the international community has no desire to take heed. At a time where the prevailing concern is which colour poppy an individual chooses to wear, individuals would do much better to reflect on the causes of past conflict, rather than to simply lament their consequences, which the modern world is edging ever closer to replicating.

– Jenny Pavitt 

Image by Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports