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Elon University historians reflect on ‘The Great War’

ELON, N.C. -- They called it “The Great War” because they never thought anything like it would happen again.

And if it weren’t for The Great War, it may not have.

“As tensions rose in the last decades of the 19th century, a coming war seemed inevitable to many observers,” Elon historian Michael Carignan said.

But both Carignan and his colleague, Jim Bissett, who specializes in American history, believe the war was not inevitable.

What they both know though, was that it was the war in which the tactics most lagged behind the weaponry.

“The industrial revolution made industrial slaughter possible,” Carignan said. “But it also created a kind of competitiveness among industrial nations that got turned into an industrial militarized race to see who can build up the largest army or navy.”

And Germany was late to join the race of world Imperialism.

“The Kaiser was young and ambitious and recognized that Germany lost the colonial game, so it was aggressive in trying to play catch up. So we blame Kaiser Wilhelm II for tensions that ended up exploding in 1914.”

The explosion shocked the world – 67 million soldiers took part and nearly half of them were killed or seriously wounded, along with eight million civilians.

“It was called a rich man's war and a poor man's fight and it really was,” Bissett said. “It was a crisis of many Americans who, for the first time, questioned the legitimacy of going to war for their country - the first time that had really happened in American history.”

It created trouble even for those Americans who didn’t fight.

“It led to what many historians consider the greatest challenge to civil liberties in American history,” said Bissett, mentioning how socialist leader Eugene V. Debs went to jail for giving anti-war speeches.”

See how the event that lead to the war was, to a large degree, an accident, in this edition of the Buckley Report.