Hundred years ago, one of the most violent conflicts in the history of mankind began. For four years, alliances of countries faced each other in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia (a little bit) and on the oceans. The violence used would take a different scale from before: the era of industrial war had begun. The First World War and its millions of victims would mark humanity and certainly the twentieth century – not in the least, because, two decades later, it also led to a Second World War.
In Belgium, the commemorations of World War I have started a few weeks ago, with ceremonies attended by government leaders of countries that once faced each other on the battlefield. The German offensive against France cut through our country, till then neutral. The violation of the neutrality of Belgium turned out to be the trigger for the United Kingdom to get involved in the conflict. Belgium was the first battlefield, and most of its territory would be occupied during the war. A small corner of the country, the area around Ypres, witnessed some of the most deadly offensives (including ones using mustard gas) of the war. Certainly for the British troops and Commonwealth, the sacrifices of human lives were enormous, as the Ypres memorials can testify. Belgium is a land of military cemeteries. At 200 meters from my home in Lier, you can find a small cemetery which I visit from time to time, alone or with one of my children. Belgian soldiers who died in the fall of 1914 are buried there. Next to them, one finds Canadian soldiers who died 30 years later, during the liberation of Belgium in ‘44.
The time to remember the bloodshed of the past is a time for ceremonies, but also a time for books. In Europe, libraries are filled with books on the First World War. One of the books I read was a book entitled ‘Le jour le plus meurtrier de l’histoire de France: 22 août 1914’ (in English, ‘the most deadly day in the history of France: August 22, 1914’). I didn’t know, but the deadliest day for France was not a day during the Marne campaign or in the trenches of Verdun, but one at the very beginning of the war, in Belgium. 27,000 French soldiers died on that day.
In his book, Jean Michel Steg, the author, tries to understand the causes of this disaster. The French army thought it was ready for the conflict, but its military doctrine was still inspired by the Napoleonic wars. The French generals were rigid, dogmatic and had rather big egos. The army’s tactical organization was based on centralized and rather slow lines of decision making. Soldiers wore very bright red trousers that made them visible from afar. The French generals thought they would win the first battles – considered as decisive – by overwhelming the German soldiers with the fury and sheer bravery of French soldiers and bayonet charges. That day, instead, in successive waves, the French professional soldiers and their officers were massacred by the machine guns and artillery of ‘der Kaiser’.
This sad episode from the past brings us back to the present, in at least two respects.
I couldn’t help but make a link between the analyses produced in this book and our own global health related activities. When one misjudges existing information, or develops bad theories based on shaky assumptions or a narrow minded view, when one does not possess the information processing systems to correct decisions, if need be, via proper feedback loops and taking into account new information, this can have terrible consequences. This was true for the First World War, and remains so for the challenges which humanity faces today, in the 21st century. To what extent for example do our public health interventions remain determined by our intellectual blinders, dated ideas or the blindness of decision makers? Do we respond quickly enough when our theories prove incorrect or do we instead still use them stubbornly for years after, like the German, English and (especially) French generals did for 4 years in such an absurd way, and with such a horrific toll of human lives? During a recent visit to Rwanda for example, I realized that I had paid too little attention to community health workers in the past.
August 1914 was also a month of bloodshed for many Belgian citizens. On the same day, 22 August 1914, in Tamines, a small town in Wallonia where I grew up myself, German troops massacred 423 civilians. The majority of them had been taken as ‘hostages’ and were then shot. After the war, the German army denied the war crimes it had committed against Belgian citizens in 1914. Since then, historians have made a link between these killings of civilians, the ones that preceded them (like the genocide committed on the Herero in what is now Namibia, early 20th century) and the massacre of civilians and genocide of a whole people across Europe during the second World War. The common thread, they say, is a Prussian military culture that had not been questioned. Uncritical reading of what we have been told makes us vulnerable to brainwashing, propaganda and the most deadly ideologies.
Both on the French and the German side, August 22, 1914 shows us that war has not only to do with the defense of our interests, even if they are vital ones. War also has to do with the culture, mindsets and frameworks structuring the actions of belligerent parties. These can lead to their very destruction, the mass killing of civilians, and our own ruin.
On August 22, 2014, it’s difficult not to see a connection with the current suffering of ordinary citizens in the Middle East.