Under a Spell – the Armistice at 100

In 2018, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities during World War I. While WWI is distant enough in the past to no longer be a constant comparison to the present, those years of conflict still echo today. The war was a relatively short period when many things changed.

Thousands of others have already written at length about the first modern war and its consequences. These works fill entire libraries. Instead, here I look at what enduring technologies and strategies WWI gave an opportunity to arise.

This blog doesn’t focus on coincidences like how a wrong turn tripped a cascade leading to Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia and then WWI. Instead, I’m focused more on the effects of WWI itself. There are too many to name, but here is a shortlist of consequences that may have been poised to happen, but which actually did arise because of WWI. Many of these effects are best demonstrated with quotes from people who were there.

Wartime Technology and Strategy

Technology and strategy development has fueled a lot of warfare, changing the side that won or changing the risk of fighting at all. Sometimes that technology was simple — English longbows defeating the more elite, armored French warriors at Agincourt. Roman legion formations. Catapults used during a siege. Armor and cannons made by Krupp.

But WWI put a focus on continued arms development and financing at scale. WWI was the environment in which planes were first used in war (with a very low pilot survival rate), both for reconnaissance and for attacks (shooting and bombing). The armored tank was first deployed in WWI (at first ridiculed as a tin can but then demonstrated as valuable). Poison gas and gas masks changed the battle. So did flamethrowers. And so did cannons with ranges of 75 miles.

Under a Spell

The following are a set of quotations from Philip Gibbs’ book Now It Can Be Told (also titled The Realities of War). Gibbs was a British journalist, covering the western front in beautiful prose. Along the way, his reporting was censored in order to manage public opinion in favor of the war. His book includes snippets of conversation from hundreds of soldiers and civilians, providing a type of access to the past that I don’t feel too modern-day battles even though, in theory, information flow should be freer today. Much of Gibbs’ writing is about the daily work done to just stay alive — whether in a sometimes bombed village dealing with starvation or from a flooded trench. I can’t think of a better set of quotes for the 100th anniversary of the armistice.

On the madness of war

“This sense of being under a black spell I found expressed by other men, and by German prisoners who used the same phrase. I remember one of them in the battles of the Somme, who said, in good English: ‘This war was not made in any sense by mankind. We are under a spell.’ This belief was due, I think, to the impersonal character of modern warfare, in which gun-fire is at so long a range that shell-fire has the quality of natural and elemental powers of death—like thunderbolts—and men killed twenty miles behind the lines while walking over sunny fields or in busy villages had no thought of a human enemy desiring their individual death.”

Those cannons that could shoot for up to 75 miles (read Machester’s Arms of Krupp for an account of the machinery and its centuries of development) were thunderbolts, as Gibbs described. A distance of miles was different from the hundreds of yards a longbow arrow can fly. But compare cruise missiles and drone warfare today.

In Ypres

“In that cavalry mess, I heard queer conversations. Those officers belonged to the old families of England, the old caste of the aristocracy, but the foul outrage of the war—the outrage against all ideals of civilization—had made them think, some of them for the first time, about the structure of social life and of the human family. They hated Germany as the direct cause of war, but they looked deeper than that and saw how the leaders of all great nations in Europe had maintained the philosophy of forms and had built up hatreds and fears and alliances over the heads of the peoples whom they inflamed with passion or duped with lies. ‘The politicians are the guilty ones,’ said one cavalry officer. ‘I am all for a revolution after this bloody massacre. I would hang all politicians, diplomats, and so-called statesmen with strict impartiality.’”

Managing public opinion

Compare one of Gibbs’ accounts of wartime censorship of journalists (first quote) with that of German General Erich Ludendorff (second quote). Both states took similar approaches to information flow and public opinion.

“Belonging to the old caste of army mind, they believed that war was the special prerogative of professional soldiers, of which politicians and people should have no knowledge. Therefore as civilians in khaki, we were hardly better than spies.” (Gibbs)

“Every race had its own newspaper which was, of course, subject to censorship…. For the Press and the censorship, Captain Bertkau acted as my adviser…. With his strong national feeling, he was just what I wanted. I gave all newspapers clear instructions to discuss events in Germany in a spirit acceptable to the Imperial Government. I could not, of course, permit any political activity on the part of the people. They were also forbidden to hold meetings.” — Ludendorff’s book, My War Memories

Both the German and British (in Gibbs’ case) press had an unusual relationship with their armies, governments and public. When armies travel internationally and fight wars that take place elsewhere (the case for Britain and Germany in WWI) governments try to manage public support by controlling information. Public support is an asset. That support, if maintained, keeps soldiers fighting longer than they would otherwise. That support must also be developed in order to make the case for engaging in battles across the world, as the US entered the war later on.

At the Battle of the Somme

“Away behind, a French farmer was cutting his grass with a long scythe, in steady, sweeping strokes. Only now and then did he stand to look over at the most frightful picture of battle ever seen until then by human eyes. I wondered, and wonder still, what thoughts were passing through that old brain to keep him at his work, quietly, steadily, on the edge of hell. For there, quite close and clear, was hell, of man’s making, produced by chemists and scientists, after centuries in search of knowledge.”

Maybe that old brain knew that this was just the start. That spell has been recast again and again for 100 years.

Breaking the spell at human scale

Armistice is an interesting word. It simply means the laying down of arms. And that was what happened on November 11, 1918 after four and a half years of fighting. The end of the spell? Here’s a quote from Gibbs’ time in Cologne, after the Armistice, but before peace was signed:

“Here they were among the ‘Huns.’ The men they passed in the streets and sat within the restaurants had been in German uniforms a few weeks before, or a few days. They were ‘the enemy,’ the men they had tried to kill, the men who had tried to kill them. They had actually fought against them in the same places. At the Domhof Hotel, I overheard a conversation between a young waiter and three of our cavalry officers. They had been in the same fight in the village of Noyelles, near Cambrai, a tiny place of ruin, where they had crouched under machine-gun fire. The waiter drew a diagram on the table-cloth. ‘I was just there.’ The three cavalry officers laughed. ‘Extraordinary! We were a few yards away.’ They chatted with the waiter as though he were an old acquaintance who had played against them in a famous football-match. They did not try to kill him with a table-knife. He did not put poison in the soup.”

After the armistice, the first interactions of the victors among the defeated spoke to human nature more than wartime formalities of hatred. This peaceful scene would have been bewildering to the British (or American) public. (I suppose the German public saw it in person for themselves.)

“I looked around the Cafe Bauer—a strange scene after four and a half years Hun-hating. English soldiers were chatting with Germans, clinking beer mugs with them. The Germans lifted their hats to English ‘Tommies’; our men, Canadian and English, said ‘Cheerio!’ to German soldiers in uniforms without shoulder-straps or buttons. English people still talking of Huns, demanding vengeance, the maintenance of the blockade, would have become hysterical if they had come suddenly to this German cafe before the signing of peace. Long before peace was signed at Versailles it had been made on the Rhine. Stronger than the hate of war was human nature.”

The Next 100 Years

The earlier US history (as advised by the founding fathers) avoiding “entangling alliances,” and of isolationism or non-intervention (though with many regional exceptions in the 1800s and early 1900s) was assumed long over by the time Eisenhower gave his “military-industrial complex” farewell address. As he said in that speech:

“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” Eisenhower’s last address, 1961

Those technological advances that took place in the condensed time of WWI have been never-ending for generations now. That is, rather than wait for the conflict to deploy resources in warfare, there is a budget for the constant development and purchase of new wartime tech. Again Gibbs:

“Modern civilization was wrecked on those fire-blasted fields, though they led to what we called ‘Victory.’… The Old Order of the world died there, because many men who came alive out of that conflict were changed, and vowed not to tolerate a system of thought which had led up to such a monstrous massacre of human beings who prayed to the same God, loved the same joys of life, and had no hatred of one another except as it had been lighted and inflamed by their governors, their philosophers, and their newspapers. The German soldier cursed the militarism which had plunged him into that horror. The British soldier cursed the German as the direct cause of all his trouble, but looked back on his side of the lines and saw an evil there which was also his enemy—the evil of a secret diplomacy which juggled with the lives of humble men so that war might be sprung upon them without their knowledge or consent….”


If you look at the change in armaments from WWI to WWII (a span of just 20 years), the changes are dramatic. Every piece of war technology became dramatically more advanced. Much more dramatic and advancement than the 20 years preceding WWI. Include atomic bombs and advancement was orders of magnitude more advanced.

In a single post, what new can we say about the second-order effects of WWI? There are several unintended consequences that are more understandable in hindsight, though how the situation could have ended differently was as much a question of the politics of the day as any rational evaluation of future outcomes.

  • The war increased the likelihood that the US would become an interventionist rather than an isolationist.
  • The war proved the model for financing armaments and the development of large militaries.
  • The war enabled regional re-imagining, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which (while not exactly enacted) planned the British and French carve-up of the Middle East, setting the stage for later problems.
  • The war led to changes to national boundaries in the German Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, and more.
  • The Versailles Treaty, which shifted the German colony of Qingdao to Japan rather than back to China, led to the Chinese student-led May Fourth Movement and protests that increased the likelihood of Communism emerging in China.

There was a general belief that the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh (see Keynes’ Economic Consequences of the Peace), though also some (notably France, the location of many of the battles) thought it was not harsh enough. It was only later realized that German post-war spending on rearming exceeded the reparations themselves (see “The Carthaginian Peace, or the Economic Consequences of Mr. Keynes,” by Étienne Mantoux).

As French general Marshall Foch said, “This is not peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”

Previously published on Unintended Consequences.

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