8/9/12

Warfare and Culture, Apocalypse modern conflict, 1915-1930

 Fatalism of Global Conflict & The culture of ‘Apocalypse’ Modern Conflict 1915-1939




Introduction: This post will be slightly more abstract this week, dealing with the collective culture of socio-political violence in warfare & combat studies of the 20th century, especially during the Great War & throughout the 'Inter War' era in Europe. I've always found the culture of the Great War generation and the preceding generation so compelling because of  the sheer volume of mass movement conflicts and total war ideologies within. 

The diverse backgrounds, ethnicity, and national identities of the millions upon millions of men and women who fought and endured the many struggles of arms and ideologies throughout 1900-1945 and beyond, intrigue my greater historical ideals and conceptions of warfare, diplomacy, politics, culture, and society to this day.



The fatalism harbored by the harsh realities of the Great War and its corresponding conflicts in the early 20’s is just one of the factors in the rise of nationalistic militarism which plunges Europe and the world into mass conflict yet again in 1939.

The generations of European men born in circa 1870-1899 and then the second generation born in 1900-c.1925 would be mostly consumed by the swell of varying nationalist, socialist, anarchist, communist, or fascist ideologies that were rapidly cultivating following the end of the apocalypse that was World War I.

While the first generation would be the political leaders, commanders and generals of the later conflicts in World War II and the early Cold War, the second generation would field the burden of the Second World War and the aftermath of decolonization in Europe and abroad.

The uncertainty and economic collapse which followed for the veterans and citizens of Europe helped to give them a distinct socio-cultural, and perhaps deep seeded psychological disposition for ideological based violence, and perhaps in regards to warfare, a desire or need to live the life of a soldier and mercenary, devoted to combat and death.

It can be argued that the fatalistic culture of modern conflict began in 1915 on all fronts of the Great War. This was period when the war intensified to its bloody years of attrition which destroyed, physically and mentally (psychologically speaking) generations of young men who fought in the trenches and fields from France to Russia and Austria.

Two continental Imperial powers, the German Empire and the Russian Empire fought throughout the war in the East near Poland and Austria. After starting the war poorly, by 1915-1916 the German Empire and their Austro-Hungarian allies began to push back the feared hordes of Russian soldiers and their Cossack cavalrymen, culturally hated by the Germans and Austrians just as the ancestors of Genghis Khan had been feared in Asia and Europe, as essentially conqueror-horseman, pitiless slayers of men, women, and beast akin to the fears of Christendom in the early 1200's.

Meanwhile during the Great War the allied French & British armies fought some of the most ferocious battles to ever have been fought anywhere in the 20th century within France, Belgium and in far away campaigns in Turkey, the Middle East and the Balkans, reminiscent of the colonial wars fought from 1860-1913 during the height of Imperial-Colonial power globally.

The Frenchman and the British colonial soldier clad in their colored tunics and regalia and later in tan during the later modern imperial conflicts fought and died by the hundreds in those days, in the Great War they died in the thousands into the millions. Often communicable disease's afflictions were often as bad as the horrors of war.

By 1916 the war in Europe had no clear end in sight with millions dead on both sides already. The prophetic statement of Lord Grey in 1914, “The lights are going out all over Europe and I doubt we will see them go on again in our lifetime” was really indicative of this belief that the Great War would never end and that the collective culture of Europe would never be the same.

The War did end eventually however as all wars do, after an immense struggle which inflicted the death blow on imperialism in Europe and abroad, yet due to a lack of enforcement and the greater failure of the League of Nations[1], a resurgence of neo-Imperialist desires followed due to the dire costs and uncertain end of the war in 1918.

From 1918-1919 following the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, many different population shifts occurred following the defeat and transfer of forces under the new territories of Europe from the Baltic to Eastern Europe. National identity and this new stronger sentiment of nationalist militarism was very critical from 1918-1925, when peace was officially proclaimed in Europe while Civil War was ending or raging on in many nations.

If we can generalize war and disunity simultaneously erupted between citizens, soldiers, socio-cultural and/or political movements, who had been repressed by ages of monarchical/oligarchic rule. These institutions nevertheless grappled for power between 1900-1935, through the culture of militarism and the strong traditions of standing armies in many European nations.

One cultural example of this fatalism in the context of modern global warfare is Spanish history from 1900-1939. Spain is interesting and is a complete anomaly in the study of this period because they avoided active participation in both World Wars yet culturally their ties to militarism and warfare remained ever strong.

Embarrassed nationally and militarily by their defeat in Cuba and the Philippines by the Americans in 1898 the Spanish empire clung to power with their proud traditions as a Catholic, monarchist controlled, continental and imperial power dating back to the El Cid’s Reconquista which ended 1492. The younger generations of Spanish men who were military age came along after the loss of Spain’s overseas colonies and they became critical figures in the ‘Africanista’ movement.[2]

An important socio-cultural entity in Spain during the 20th century, they were soldiers and officers stationed throughout Spanish Morocco that held immense power and influence as caudillos (military generals/politicos) in one of the last imperial desert possessions still ruled by the draconian ways of late 19th century ruled by the military throughout the 20’s- and 40’s-1970’s, Spain in general during the 20th century became a country politically dominated by the veterans of the imperial wars in Africa from 1910-1927.

Like the French Foreign Legionnaires in Algeria Spain develops a unique military culture of adventure and conquest, with a nod to the centuries old traditions of the cavalier dating back to the imperialist legions of the 1800’s under Napoleon and the ‘Old Regimes’ in Europe.

The Spanish army, the ‘regulares’, in Morocco who fought against the Riffian tribes from 1920-1927 took a majority of the casualties and were known generally as ineffective, uneducated, and chronically poor soldiers overall.

Spanish Legionnaires who aided the Army in maintaining and keeping the peace however, had more experience and were better paid and trained, strictly volunteers many in the regular army hated them for this fact.[3] The Spanish Legionnaires like their French counterparts were Spanish and foreign mercenaries who recited the chant ‘Long Live Death’ religiously. They fought brutally with the goal of annihilating their enemies for god, king, country, and the Legion itself.

General Millan Astray in 1921 with the Spanish Legion

Later the Legionnaires of Morocco would land in Spain to fight the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 for the nationalist-fascist rebels led by their Legionnaire generals, General Franco (b.1892-1975) and Millan Astray (b.1879-1954), known as the founder of the Legion and its “Long Live Death” mantra. The Spanish Civil War highlights this era and its importance to the history of the ideological struggles of the 20th century and the prelude to World War II.[4]

Elsewhere in Europe the chaos of the Great War fomented rebellion and political isolation evident in many of the victor and vanquished nations alike.

In Germany the Free Corps are prominent and their ideological beliefs and actions were actually sub-verted by the Nazi’s much later in the 30’s, since many Free Corps men were originally committed Imperialists and officers of the Prussian military elite. In Italy a similar system evolves much earlier following Benito Mussolini’s rapid ascent to power centered on veterans groups and street violence perpetrated by younger disaffected college age or younger men, veterans or not.

Overall we can observe the impact violence and the military culture of global warfare has on the European men who fought in and survived the prolonged carnage of the Great War. For the Russian populations their suffering on a massive scale is offset by equally massive population transfer, so that only a relatively samll number of generations were affected unlike France, Britain, and Germany who saw the cream of a generation eradicated throughout four years, or more, of conflict.

For the White monarchist armies who executed any Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War 1918-1923 (and often times any and all Jews as well as Christians falsely convicted of Bolshevik sympathies) their war was an apocalypse because the very nation that defined their makeup and existence, no longer existed, their symbol of god on the earth the Tsar executed in 1918.

Standing in its place was the antithesis of everything the White’s believed in, Bolshevik Communism, which becomes such a potent force and so reviled as well that nationalist, fascist or not, anti-Bolshevik militarism, is a most common theme of the 20’s and 30’s-40's.

In general the influence of old religious and cultural beliefs, some dating back to the late medieval ages, clashing with modern ideologies is an undeniable facet of early 20th century history, in the case of Russia and its former territories this was a catastrophe.

Women's Death Battalion, formed in 1917 for Russian President Alexander Kerensky's ill fated bid to renew a campaign against Germany which caused the Revolution and later Civil War in Russia

Certainly across Europe disenfranchised veterans turned once again to the military for either the comfortable (or uncomfortable) yet stable life it provided. If they did not poverty and destitution often ensued, banditry becoming a problem in the far off regions of Russia, Germany, the Balkans, and Central Asia.

Perhaps the fatalism of this era escapes the larger culture of the Western nations though we can probably also find evidence of the apocalypse culture of modern warfare affecting them from 1915-1935 as well if. Seemingly it was the defeated or slighted nations (by the Versailles treaty and its observance in the early 20’s) or the nations who took little or no active role in the Great War that went to war or prepared for war following 1918. The Bonus Army was driven violently by tanks and by bayonets attached to the rifles of American soldiers from their makeshift camps in front of the White House in 1932.

The French meanwhile in political and social chaos throughout the 1930’s too took a totally fatalistic approach to another future conflict committing to a stubborn defense against an enemy they assume will advance slowly and give due warning upon doing so.[5]

Under pressure from socialist and communist parties elected from within, political instability was rife and the French army, from 1920-1938 was made up of conscripts compelled by national service to man the frontier defenses with Germany. One could argue this was a culture bred out of the Great War which caused France's quick downfall in 1940.

French surrender in Alsace 1940

For France the nation and its people committed to fighting a seemingly inevitable & completely defensive war with Germany yet again. Indeed France wanted a highly mechanized force to defend France, not to necessarily attack but to defend in case of agression. With the safety of well defended lines (tanks, artillery, and concrete bunkers) which would help them greatly in a conflict with the Germans if they invaded from the East as had been traditionally feared since before the Franco Prussian War of 1870-1871.[6]

Locked away in their Maginot Line fortresses and subterranean concrete bunkers the French seemingly hoped to weather the next apocalypse modern conflict with a minimal loss of life and a yet with total victory, seemingly ignorant of the coming storm.


Choice Bibliography:

Alvarez, Jose E. The Betrothed of Death, The Spanish Foreign Legion during the Rif Rebellion 1920-1927 (Greenwood Press, 2001) Hardcover 282 pgs.

Note: Alvarez is a professor at the University of Houston with an interest in Latin American and Spanish-Portuguese imperialist studies. Betrothed of Death is an operations, tactics, strategy, and historical account of the formation of the Spanish Foreign Legion. Recounts the Legion’s first conflict from 1920-1927 in Morocco following the start of the infamous Rif Rebellion and the later Battle of Annual in 1921, in which more than 13,000 Spanish soldiers lost their lives in the greatest defeat of imperialism by native forcstory.

Using all the modern tools of war the Spanish eventually pacified the Riffians with tanks, bombers, and even poison gas in one of the last significant imperial conflicts before the 1930’s and 1940’s. Betrothed of Death includes many pictures as well as an appendix of Legion songs, timeline, biographies of important figures, and corresponding graphs & data.

Bond, Brian War & Society in Europe 1870-1970 (Mcgill University, 1998)

Citino, Robert Michael The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich




[1] LoN failures include: Chaco War, between Paraguay and Bolivia over territorial rights to the Gran Chaco. Japanese incursions into northern China and later mainland China beginning in 1931, and the 1935-1936 invasions and conquering of Ethiopia by Italy.
[2] Alvarez, Jose E. The Betrothed of Death (Greenwood Press, CT 2001)
[3] Alvarez, Jose E.
[4] Alvarez, Jose E.
[5] Bond, Brian War & Society in Europe 1870-1970 (Mcgill University, 1998)
[6] Bond


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