Our Views: From 1914 to today

The author J.R.R. Tolkien survived what he and his contemporaries called the Great War. He left the army without a wound, a medal or a promotion.

He was lucky indeed, having been among the British soldiers thrown fruitlessly at the German trenches in the epic Battle of the Somme. To escape from that horror, in which many thousands died in a single day in 1916, and then live to leave the army at the end of the war, was not a discredit but an accomplishment.

Many of his peers were dead.

That experience of Tolkien’s generation is going to be recounted again over the next few years with the centennial of the opening of the war, in August 1914. Until the allied victory, caused in no small part by American intervention in 1917, the Great War was one of the most cataclysmic events in human history.

Many of its consequences have been overshadowed for modern eyes by the war that, 20 years on, shook Europe and the world again. But if the Great War is now World War I, the profound effects of the first war will be the subject of great study.

The easiest call that is the cause of dramatic headlines today is the postwar partition of the Middle East by the winning powers at the expense of the losing Ottoman Empire. The tribes and sects were set up in countries more or less arbitrarily, and they are fighting over the results, in a way, every time a car bomb goes off in Mosul or Baghdad.

As the British newspaper The Guardian noted, the war also led to some positive developments, not least the capacity for blood transfusions in the field, that would ultimately save lives. The horrors of poison gas attacks led to an international ban in 1925. The maiming and mutilation of the troops in the trenches led to reconstructive surgery after the war.

And soft-focus Downton Abbey mythology to the contrary, the dramatic overthrow of discredited aristocracies changed the western world forever. If it also led to the horrors of communism in Russia and elsewhere in the eastern countries, overall a more democratic world was born in the blood of the Great War.

And if the League of Nations born after the first war was a failure, the United Nations was more of a success in helping to keep the general peace that occurred after the second war.

All this ought to be the subject of serious reflection over the coming year and years of these anniversaries. Perhaps the biggest reflection is that the nations felt that war had become so unthinkable that the “guns of August” would never fire, and the golden youth of the pre-war years would never be sacrificed.

Unlike Tolkien, millions were.