Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Origins of "Great War"

The Oxford English Dictionary  lists two definitions for "Great War": 

(a) the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815; 

(b) the war which began on 28 July 1914 with hostilities between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and ultimately involved the majority of the nations of the world; it was suspended by armistice 11 Nov. 1918.

The first published usage of "Great War" for (b) seems to have been in 1914, by Maclean's Magazine, October issue, Volume XVII: Number 12, page 54: 

"Some wars name themselves — the Crimean War, the Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Thirty Years' War, the Revolutionary War, and many others. This is the Great War.  It names itself."  


  1. Interesting choice of words, in a way, "suspended by armistice" rather than "ended." Since it could be seen as a suspension, til 1939..... On a somewhat lighter note, was there not a comedy movie some years ago where someone went around shouting in November 1918, "World War One is Over!!!"

  2. I believe that as far as the UK is concerned, the Great War was officially deemed to have ended in July 1921, when the fighting in Russia was over, and Germany was no longer occupied. Certainly the Commonwealth War Graves Commission considers that a casualty who died up until that date was a war casualty and rates a CWGC gravestone.
    But of course it was merely a twenty year pause until the re-match.

  3. The "Armistice" of Nov 11, 1918 halted the fighting of -- "suspended" -- the Great War. In this sense it is correct to say that the Armistice merely suspended the Great War. Officially the war was ended for most combatants when the various treaties negotiated at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 were ratified by the governments of the combatants. For almost every county, ratification came quickly. An exception was the U.S. It, for a number of reasons, refused to ratify the Versailles Treaty negotiated to end the war with Germany. Thus the U.S. technically remained at war with Germany until a separate treaty was negotiated and ratified (excluding membership in the League of Nations) when Warren Harding became president.