World War I now belongs only to history.
Florence Green joined the RAF as a mess steward at 18, just two months before the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918. She could have had little notion that amid some of the most frantic fighting of the war, as the Allies pounded the Château-Thierry salient in the Battle of Amiens, undoing the summer gains of the German Army’s last ditch attempt to force a conclusion to the Western Front, that the war would be shortly over. Nor could Florence Green have likely envisioned that a conflict that took or injured 35 million lives would spare her until nearly 111 years of age.
The “World War I generation”, if such a term can even be coined, has long since passed as the few surviving modern links to the conflict vanished. The last combatants, Charles Choules of the British Navy and Frank Buckles of the U.S. Army, died early last year. The German debt from the Treaty of Versailles was only paid off in September of 2010. Even the geopolitical and cultural effects of the war have significantly faded, as Germany and France battle not for European supremacy but jointly to keep the rest of Europe’s crippling debt from dominating them.
With nothing seemingly remain to tie the past to the present, how will World War I truly be remembered now that it’s final judgement is in the hands of history? Will it be seen as the touchstone for the creation of the modern world, ending the age of European empire? Or will Florence Green, Frank Buckles and others become future Yves Prigents, the last survivor of the Crimean War – trivia notes for wars of senseless and forgotten ages.
Florence Green’s passing changes nothing about our view of World War I – right now. The “Great War” was seen as incomplete in its own era, and increasingly became a bloody footnote to the conflict that resolved the question of whether Europe (and thus the world) would be dominated by Anglo-Franco democratic sensibilities or Prussian authoritarianism. Such thoughts today seem as foreign as an Austro-Hungarian Empire, or that an assassination of an Archduke nearly 98 1/2 years ago in Sarajevo could spark a global war. Heck, plenty of people don’t even remember the conflict in Bosnia & Herzegovina in the 1990s.
The task of preserving the significance of World War I, indeed any war, falls not on the Florence Greens of the world nor historians. It falls a little on everyone to remember such sacrifices and remind the next generation why they mattered.