Written from the perspective of a soldier's ghost, this song chronicles World War I, known at the time as "The Great War." Spurred by imperialism, militarism, alliances, nationalism and finally the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, conflict in the European states escalated into the first World War. Propaganda became ubiquitous as men were sent to the trenches and women to the factories. New weaponry like poisonous gasses and machine guns changed warfare. The war finally ended with the Treat of Versailles.
They sent us all to war,
They told us to be ready to fight.
But all they really cared about,
Was if we were ready to die.
It’s called the Great War; I guess I know why,
‘Cause it was so big, and so many died.
Like me, yeah I’m just a ghost,
Coming back from the past just to pass you a note,
And pass on what I know, yeah I’ve seen a lot,
I’ve seen soldiers line up, and seen ‘em drop.
Where should I begin? What was the meaning?
Those who don’t remember mistakes repeat ‘em.
And why’d it happen? I’mma sound out the reasons,
First, all these European states were scheming.
Imperialism – they wanted to expand,
Control people, control land.
Plus they had new ships and guns,
Militarism – that’s how these nations spending their funds.
And they had alliances and pacts,
Like if you punch him, I’mma punch you back.
And the people just cheer and grin,
Nationalism, everyone wants their team to win.
Yeah, it was like a bomb set to blow,
Was it inevitable? Well that’s debated,
But when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated,
The camel’s back broke, that was the last straw.
One domino goes down, they all fall,
I saw my best friend die,
But I still see him,
He’s right there by my side. (x2)
I hope you’re ready for more,
Propaganda’s all over; they’re selling the war,
Telling us all lies to enlist us,
Saying we would return to our loved ones by Christmas.
We were so amped – thought war was harmless,
How can you hug your family when you’re armless?
Stuck in a trench like a baseball dugout,
But when they get a hit, we have to pull a slug out.
And back home, they're eating rations,
Just a little food that has to last.
In Total War, we’re all playing our parts,
Women in factories making our parts.
African armies, colonial soldiers,
All fight in Europe; they’re following orders.
New technology vs. old tactics,
That means the whole death toll is massive.
New weapons, they’re killing us fast with,
Submarines, tanks, and poisonous gasses,
Big guns that go ratatatat,
Machine gun fire make a boy fall flat.
It’s not all quiet on the Western Front,
Nor the Eastern front, I won’t even front.
I’m so shell-shocked I don’t speak for months,
They might ship me in a box to my grieving mom.
I’m scared, I’m cold, soaked through my coat,
Four years later, a little hope.
Armistice, the fire ceased,
Then the Treaty of Versailles meant peace.
They cut up Eastern Europe, put shackles on Germany.
“Think that’ll work out?” Certainly!
At least this was the “War to End War,”
We’ll never have another world war, for sure…
I saw my best friend die,
But I still see him,
He’s right there by my side. (x2)
Flocab Spits Facts
The Lost Generation
The efficient and creative technologies of the Industrial Revolution changed the way that people lived. Many citizens of the world were enjoying an improved quality of life, which gave them high hopes for the twentieth century. This was supposed to be the age of change! Of opportunity! Of prosperity! Few imagined that these same technologies would also change the way that people died. Few people expected World War I. But by the end of the First World War, 10 million people—mostly young men—would be dead. Killed more efficiently and creatively than ever before.
Suddenly, the twentieth century didn't look quite so promising.
During its time, people called World War I the "Great War." It was the largest and most violent war the world had ever seen. Great just refers to size here, not the meaning "very good"—few people thought the war was good. And why did people not just say, “World War I”? The answer is simple; there hadn't been a World War II yet. The war came to be called World War I only after people needed to distinguish it from World War II.
The war lasted from 1914 to 1918 and involved the entire continent of Europe as well as many other countries from around the world.
What were the causes of the war?
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the immediate cause of World War I. But it isn't fair or right to blame the entire war on the assassination of one fairly unimportant leader. That would be like blaming a big fire on just one match after you've splashed gallons of gasoline on a dry forest. Europe was ready for trouble.
Cause 1: Imperialism
European nations were competing with one another to claim the greatest number of colonies in Africa, Asia and South America. More colonies meant more global power. Because they were fighting for international dominance, they were less likely to help one another. And their competitive mindset certainly wasn't helpful for peacekeeping.
The weapons became more and more intense.
Cause 2: Militarism
European countries were not just competing for colonies. They were also rivals for military power. England had built the famously large and powerful Royal Navy. Other countries—especially Germany—believed that they needed to build up their navies just in case they ever had to fight against England. Many of the countries were also building up their weapon supplies. They did so mainly because they wanted to prevent other countries from attacking them, not because they actually wanted to fight. But either way, a lot of weapons were being stockpiled—plenty that could be used.
Even though the leaders of these countries were busy strengthening their militaries, they knew they needed some friends. So they turned to some of their neighboring countries and said, "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine." Various countries made military alliances, or agreements that if another country attacked their friends, they would back their friends and help them fight. Before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, there were two major alliances in Europe. …
The female personifications of France, Russia, and Britain.
What countries were in the Triple Entente?
France, Britain and Russia (entente means "understanding" in French). During the war, they were known as the Allied Powers. Other countries that supported the Allied Powers during the war included Serbia (remember this one!), Belgium, Italy, Japan, Greece and Romania.
Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. They were known as the Central Powers during the war, though Italy actually ended up joining the other side. Other countries that supported the Central Powers included the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Bulgaria.
Children dressed in Central Powers military uniforms. The caption reads, "Firm and true, her gallant young, Until all the enemies are conquered."
Nationalism is a belief system in which people love their country and want it to be the most powerful nation in the world. They cheer for military victories and often denounce those who propose peace as traitors. Before World War I began, Europe was filled with many new nations. Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary had become countries only in the middle of the 1800s. Citizens of these new countries, as well as older countries such as England, France and Russia, were very excited to support their nations.
Imagine your favorite team makes it to the championship game. How hard are you going to cheer for them? If a fan of the rival team starts criticizing your team, how are you going to feel? Now imagine that the stakes are much higher. It’s life or death. And everyone has guns. Can you see how it can be dangerous when whole countries feel this way?
The combination of imperialism, nationalism, militarism and alliances made Europe ready to explode with one little spark. That one little spark? The assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Ferdinand was the archduke, or leader, of Austria-Hungary. While Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip assassinated him. Princip was from Serbia, a country directly east of Austria-Hungary. He believed that Austria-Hungary should give some of its land back to Serbia, and he was so angry that he thought he could get his way by killing Austria-Hungary's leader. Not such a great idea. Because of the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.
Here's where the four big causes start to explode. Because Serbia was part of the Allied Powers, Russia stepped in to support Serbia against Austria-Hungary. And Germany wanted to help out Austria-Hungary, so it declared war on Russia and France. Then Germany invaded Belgium. England and Japan couldn't stand by while Germany attacked their Russian and French allies, so they declared war on Germany. Driven by nationalism and alliances, and fueled by newly built-up weapons supplies, everyone was ready and able to fight.
Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914. By the end of the year, the entire continent was at war.
People were actually excited to go off to war! Largely because of strong nationalism, young men jumped at the opportunity to wear a spiffy new uniform and fight for their countries. (Women weren't able to join the military at this time.) The young men thought that they'd go off and come back war heroes! Their mothers would beam with pride! Beautiful ladies would swoon! Besides, most people in the Allied countries were saying, "The boys will be home by Christmas!" Christmas was only a few months away, and how bad could a few months be?
Indeed, both sides believed in the romance of war. They both thought the war would end quickly. The Allied Powers assumed that they would be able to squelch the Central Powers right away. The Central Powers thought they'd be able to obliterate the Allied Powers immediately. Neither side knew how wrong they were, nor the price they would pay for this mistake.
World War I brought a new style of warfare. In earlier wars, waves of army troops in bright, beautiful uniforms would march in lines, shooting at the enemy, while generals on horseback urged them onward. Until the later part of the nineteenth century, guns just couldn’t shoot very far or accurately. Battles were determined by a general’s tactics and by the stamina of the soldiers. When young men were rushing to enlist and fight, they imagined this old-fashioned, romantic version of war.
How does this propaganda romanticize an older version of war?
Rifles had been mass-produced for only a few decades, but already they were being replaced with a new, far more powerful weapon: the machine gun. These machine guns could fire more bullets, farther and faster. They were capable of mowing down entire cavalry divisions (which happened). But because the guns were so heavy, they weren't very portable. Soldiers dug trenches and waited, ready to shoot at any enemy that came near. This new defensive style of warfare was called trench warfare.
Life in the trenches was terrible for soldiers. Soldiers were wet, cold and hungry, but that wasn't even close to the worst of it. Soldiers fought at all hours of the day and lived in constant fear of being shot. Even death brought no escape from the trenches. Leaving the trench to bury the dead proved too dangerous, so soldiers often fought surrounded by the corpses of their friends and brothers.
And for the men who were lucky enough to survive, life in the trenches continued on for years.
Australian infantry in the trenches
World War I was an example of total war, when a war affects an entire country and all citizens must fight to help win the war. Even though people back at home were not suffering in trenches, the Great War deeply affected their lives. The governments recruited everyone to help with the war effort. Women who had never been allowed to get jobs now worked in factories, making weapons. Families were allotted specific rations, or certain amounts of food and home goods, so that there would be enough food and materials to send to the boys at war. And finally, with so many dead young soldiers, everyone was grieving for their lost brothers, sons, husbands and friends.
Female munition workers in a British Shell Factory
At first, World War I was called the Great European war. But that wasn't true, mainly because all of the key players had colonies, especially in Africa. So they called upon citizens of the colonies to fight, too. During the course of World War I, over 2 million Africans served. In fact, this map shows which countries sent troops to the war—it really was most of the world!
Green countries were Allied Powers, yellow countries were Central Powers, and grey countries were neutral.
U-boats sinking British ships.
How did new weapons change the face of warfare?
U.S. Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman put it best when he said, "War is hell." But new technology like machine guns, tanks and poison gas made the hell of war even more violent. During World War I, armies used planes and submarines as weapons for the first time. German submarines were known as U-boats.
Man and horse in a gas mask
Ever see a horse in a gas mask?
World War I has been called the “chemist’s war,” because of the development and use of new chemical weapons. Most of these were poisonous gases shot via large artillery shells. Most weren’t designed to kill the enemy, but to make him sick and unable to fight. Probably the most famous gas of World War I was mustard gas, which the Germans invented. If you came in contact with this gas, your eyes would become very sore. Then you’d vomit. Then you’d bleed internally and externally. Then you’d hardly be able to breathe.
The Allied and Central powers built their trenches along the Western Front. The front was the line separating the two fighting sides. Each side was fighting to gain land and power on the other side of the front. To try to gain ground, thousands of soldiers would storm the other side and attack. But soldiers waiting in trenches could easily shoot them down.
Generals knew that most of their men would die in these offensives, but they did them anyway in hopes of moving the front even a few feet. In some ways, both the Allied and Central powers were fighting to see who would run out of young men first. As one old proverb states, "War does not determine who is right—only who is left."
Both sides saw terrible casualties, or soldiers who suffer injuries or deaths. After three years of trench warfare, the front had barely moved in either direction. The sides had reached a violent and bloody stalemate. And yet, in 1917, over 4 million soldiers from the Allied Powers and over 2 million men from the Central Powers lay dead in the trenches. Nobody was winning; everyone was losing. Yet neither side wanted to give up first.
Up until 1917, the United States was neutral in the war. This meant that they hadn't taken a side and were not fighting. In fact, the Americans actually had been making a lot of money selling weapons to both sides. In 1917, though, the German U-boats sank several American ships in hopes of cutting off supplies to the British and French. This decision went very wrong for the Germans. The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. With support from American troops and supplies, the tide began to turn, and the Allied Powers began to win the war.
By the fall of 1918, the Central Powers knew that they could not win. On November 11, 1918, the two sides reached an armistice, which means that they agreed to stop fighting. Bullets stopped flying at 11 a.m. on 11/11.
Signing the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors
What were the effects of the war?
Even though the fighting stopped on November 11, the war did not technically end until the Allied Powers and Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The treaty changed the map of Europe: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were broken apart. In their space, the new countries of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Poland and others were created.
The most dramatic part of the treaty related to Germany. Even though we know that there were many causes of the war, Germany was forced to take complete responsibility for all of the destruction and casualties of the war. All 10 million deaths of soldiers and 10 million deaths of civilians. Some of Germany’s land was taken away and given to neighboring countries, and the Germans were made to pay an extremely large debt (about $442 billion in modern dollars). The debt was so large that Germany didn’t finish paying it off until 2010.
Some historians argue that the treaty was too harsh on Germany and that by crippling Germany, the treaty helped cause the conditions that allowed Hitler to rise to power.
British author H. G. Wells coined a term that expressed the feelings of lots of people: that the Great War would be the last war ever. These people believed that war was too destructive in the modern world, and that only by defeating German militarism could there be peace. However, even at the time, some people thought this view was hopelessly naive.
Ernest Hemingway's physical war wounds
The Great War affected and hurt all nations and families that were involved. Not surprisingly, the war also influenced artists and writers alive during the time period. Pablo Picasso's horror at the war showed up in many of his paintings. Writer Gertrude Stein named this group of writers and artists the lost generation. This name comes from the fact that the world felt that they had lost a generation of young men who'd died in the war. And those who lived were deeply scarred. Writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote stories about the lost generation.