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How the ‘Great War’ redefined the world

August 6, 2014 at 6:39 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: One hundred years ago, the world was drawn into what was called the Great War. Seventeen million people died over the course of four years in a conflict that laid the foundation for wars that continue today.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bright red ceramic poppies seemed everywhere this week at the Tower of London. They cascaded down the stonework into the dry moat, each one representing a British soldier who died during the war, nearly 900,000 in all. The poppy was about the only flower that would grow in the wastelands of Belgium and Northern France, where millions fought and died in four long years of trench warfare.

This week, former enemies have marked the centennial of the conflict with ceremonies in Belgium and elsewhere.

KING PHILIPPE, Belgium (through interpreter): The remembrance of the First World War allows us to reflect on the decision made to keep the peace and bring people closer together. The European memory reminds us that no country can last without a spirit that can surpass the suffering endured, and which moves beyond the question of culpability and directs itself resolutely towards the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Great War, as it came to be called, was the world’s first fully industrialized war, with tanks, machine guns, airplanes and chemical weapons used to devastating effect.

Neutral at the beginning, the U.S. didn’t join the fight until 1917. The American commander, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, recorded this appeal to the home front, thought to be the first from a battlefield.

GEN. JOHN PERSHING, Commander, American Expeditionary Forces: Three thousand miles from home, an American army is fighting for you. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake. Only the hardest blows can win against the enemy we are fighting.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ultimately, more than four million Americans fought, 116,000 died, and 200,000 were wounded. Worldwide, 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed in Western and Eastern Europe and on other continents.

The death and destruction radically altered the maps of Europe and the Middle East and the course of world history. In 1917, the Russian Revolution brought Vladimir Lenin to power, and led to the formation of the Soviet Union. The Russian empire, along with the Austro-Hungarian and German empires, had dominated the European mainland before the war. All three collapsed and their territories ultimately became the states of modern-day Europe.

The Ottoman Empire was divided into the nation-states, including Syria and Iraq, of the Middle East. Ever since, the redrawn borders have been points of contention, helping fuel conflicts that continue today.

French President Francois Hollande took note of that Sunday, saying if France and Germany can live in peace, so too can the Middle East.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, France (through interpreter): To those who are losing hope about the peace process in the Middle East, we couldn’t send a more beautiful message than today’s. France and Germany’s history proves that determination can overcome fatality and that two people who were viewed as hereditary enemies can, within a few years, reconcile.

JEFFREY BROWN: World War I ultimately ended with the Treaty of Versailles, signed in Paris in 1919.