Crossing the North Atlantic on a modern ocean liner is a pleasant and mostly uneventful experience these days. But gazing into the depths of the presently rather stormy ocean evokes the past, and the deadly conflicts, shipwrecks and other disasters that have taken the lives of countless men, women and children over the years.
In the course of crossing a wide and dangerous ocean, there will be accidents and losses. Lloyd’s was the first to organize syndicates to address those losses, and is still doing so more than 300 years later. The greatest losses, however, in terms of lives, ships and property, has come during war time. The North Atlantic was the scene of ferocious combat in both the 1st and 2nd World Wars.
It was the vital lifeline that permitted the U.S. to supply its allies in Europe with the war materials, and inevitably the soldiers and sailors, to defeat Germany and its allies in both wars. Today, America observes Veteran’s Day. The 11th of November was formerly Armistice Day. It marked the day when a truce ended the 1st World War. The day now honors all those who served in the many wars America has fought throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Those wars weren’t supposed to happen. The 1st World War – the “Grand Guerre” or “Great War,” as it’s known in France, was touted as the “war to end wars.” It not only failed to do so, but also paved the way for totalitarian ideologies, particularly Nazism, which made the 2nd World War almost inevitable. Nonetheless, subsequent events should in no way diminish the sacrifices of those who served in that war.
Even though no veterans of the 1st World War are still living, their sacrifices are not forgotten. In the UK, France and other European countries, including Germany and others on opposing sides, the 11th of November remains a day of remembrance. Businesses and schools are closed and commemoration ceremonies are held in all the countries that fought the Great War.
In hindsight that war could have and certainly should have been avoided. In his excellent book on the origins of the 1st World War Christopher Clark describes Europe’s pre-war leaders, who allowed it to happen, as “sleepwalkers.” They knew that a war with modern weapons – heavy artillery, machine guns, poison gas, etc. – could and would kill and maim hundreds of thousands, yet they ignored this fundamental fact. Each concentrated on his country’s own national priorities.
As the war dragged on it became increasingly clear that neither side could achieve a decisive victory. Horribly destructive battles – Verdun, the Somme, the Chemin des Dames – achieved nothing, while the casualties mounted into the millions. And yet the belligerents couldn’t agree to make peace either.
The lives lost in inconclusive battles, the destruction of towns and villages and the privations suffered by civilian populations made it impossible for any government to even broach the subject of a peace without victory and expect to survive.
At this point the contesting powers realized that if America joined one side or the other, a final victory remained possible. The North Atlantic lifeline for transporting supplies was already well established, with convoys protecting merchant ships from German U-Boats as they neared Europe. It became of even more vital importance, however, when America joined the Allied side in 1917.
This could have happened even sooner after a German U-Boat torpedoed and sunk the Cunard liner Lusitania on May 7, 2015. Of the 1275 passengers on board, 785 died, including 128 Americans – Alfred Vanderbilt among them – as well as 413 of 702 crew members.
The American public was outraged, even if it was fairly certain (and has been verified by divers who have examined the wreck) that the Lusitania was carrying a quantity of arms and ammunition, a violation of provisions defining “neutral” shipping.
Despite the furor, America did not go to war on the side of Britain and its allies in 1915. The sinking, however, was a major factor in foreclosing the possibility that the U.S. might support Germany, and, despite President Wilson’s 1916 re-election slogan – “He kept us out of war,” public sentiment continued to move towards America participation on the “Allied” side.
In the 18 months that the U.S. actively participated in the war, more than 50,000 of its soldiers died in battle; more than 60,000 thousand died from accidents and disease and more than 200,000 were wounded – a very heavy cost – but one that changed the world.
In Europe an entire generation was simply no more. 1.397 million French soldiers were dead; another 4.266 million were wounded – 76.3 percent of all those engaged. German casualties were even higher, as they fought the war on two fronts. The British had proportionately fewer casualties, but were equally decimated.
The war shattered the economies of every country in Europe, both winners and losers. It engendered another 80 years of conflict. Commerce was totally disrupted across the world. Cunard had a fleet of 25 in 1914 of which 13, including the Lusitania, were lost; seven additional vessels, acquired during the war, were also lost – the majority in the North Atlantic.
The war ended European hegemony over large portions of the world, as old empires – German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman – simply disappeared. The remaining colonial empires – Britain, France, The Netherlands – began their slow, but inexorable decline, which was sealed by the 2nd World War. After the war ended countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere struck off the chains of colonialism and became sovereign nations.
Only the United States and Japan can be described as having gained something from the 1st World War, as their participation on the Allied side marks their ascendance to the top rank of the world’s powers. After the war, however, the U.S., despite its economic strength and foremost position among the nations of the world, largely withdrew from world affairs.
The U.S. had long rejected the idea of maintaining a large military force in peacetime. It had entered the war somewhat reluctantly, and demobilized returning war veterans as quickly as possible. America again remained neutral at the beginning of the 2nd Word War, entering the conflict only after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
There would be demobilization after the 2nd World War as well, but perceived threats from “Communist” nations – the Soviet Union and China – led to the realization that military force needed to be built and maintained. That necessity was enforced by the Korean War. Since the 1950’s the U.S. has built and possessed arguably the strongest armed forces the world has seen since the days of the Roman Empire.
Would the U.S. have become a different country? Would the world be different if there had been no 1st World War? Could the second, and even more destructive conflict, have been averted? Could all those who died have made a better world? No one will ever know.