Matthias Strohn: Remember World War I as a Global War

tags: World War I, anniversaries, Great Britain, Matthias Strohn



Dr Matthias Strohn is a senior lecturer in the war studies department at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He has advised German and British government bodies on the centenary commemorations

This time next year, nations across the globe will begin the centenary commemorations of the first world war – "the great seminal catastrophe" of the 20th century, as the American historian George F Kennan called it. It seems that Britain has chosen a sensible approach: a handful of national and international events, spread out over the four years from 2014 to 2018, supplemented by activities at a local level. By limiting the number of high-profile events, the UK will prevent a "commemoration fatigue" setting in among the population....

Education is necessary to move beyond the common understanding of the first world war. It is here that the government should focus its war commemorations. Simply sending representatives from schools to the battlefields of the western front is unlikely to achieve a long-lasting educational effect. Historical and cultural education, framed by language teaching and exchanges with former allies and enemies, could achieve this. International youth camps organised by the Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge – the German equivalent of the War Graves Commission – have been a success over the years, and collaboration between the two bodies would be worthwhile too.

It is also important to remember this was a true world war: it was not only fought on the fields of Flanders and the Somme. But how many in Britain have ever heard of the battle of Gorlice-Tarnów in 1915, in which German and Austrian-Hungarian troops broke through the Russian front line and occupied most of Galicia and the Polish salient? Who knows that in 1918 the middle powers occupied vast areas in the east that almost equalled the territory occupied in the second world war? Who has ever heard of the Carpathian winter campaign of 1914-1915, in which Habsburg forces fought in vain to rescue 130,000 Austrian-Hungarian soldiers trapped by Russian troops in the fortress Przemysl, and which resulted in 600,000 casualties? Who knows that the British forces were the junior partner on the western front pretty much throughout the war – they never held more than a quarter of the front. One and a half million volunteers from the Indian subcontinent served in the "great war", and 850,000 of these went overseas....



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