Earlier this month marked the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI. This has been commemorated by all sorts of ceremonies and events attended by royalty and political leaders.
But I feel like Britons have been commemorating World War I since I moved here 1.5 years ago. There’s been a non-stop barrage of books and documentaries about the conflict. Each one seem to take turns coming under criticism for ignoring a crucial element (“this book ignores the suffering of civilians,” “this documentary fails to mention the contributions of soldiers from New Zealand,” etc.)
Each year in October and November, Britons wear “Remembrance Poppies” on their lapels. You get one for making a donation to a charity that supports current and former military personnel. Technically, the poppies commemorate all soldiers who have died in both World Wars and subsequent conflicts. But the focus is on World War I. After all, the poppies were inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
In British politics, the poppies are roughly equivalent to the American flag pins that US politicians wear. If an elected official appears in public without a poppy, he obviously doesn’t support the troops. (But, seriously, who wouldn’t wear one? They look so good.)
As an American, the focus on World War I is curious to me. Americans hear about World War II on a regular basis, but its predecessor is largely ignored.
This is what I know about World War I:
- The Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated; people started fighting.
- After a long time, America got involved.
- In a 10th grade history class, our teacher told us that President Woodrow Wilson made a campaign promise to keep America out of the war. He lied. This outraged me at a tender age and probably helped steer me onto my path towards libertarianism.
I’ve heard a theory that it would have been better if America had stayed out. Both European sides were about evenly matched, so they would have been forced to reach an equitable peace settlement. The Treaty of Versailles that followed American intervention was unduly harsh on the Germans and helped fuel Hitler’s rise to power. I’d need to study the matter more closely but that sounds very plausible.
Obviously, Word War I had a much deeper impact here than it did in the US. Nearly 1 million British soldiers were killed (as opposed to about 117,000 Americans out of a much larger population). Aside from the terrible losses, there was also the complete disruption of society.
Beyond that, I sometimes wonder if the British emphasis on commemorating World War I is an attempt to make up for the meaninglessness of the conflict.
Well, these are some quick thoughts about one way Britain differs from America. It’s good to honor the brave soldiers who gave their lives – as long as you maintain a healthy perspective on the leaders who start the wars. Come October, you will see me wearing a poppy.