The Great War

Posted Friday, Aug. 08, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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One hundred years ago this week, an unprecedented world war began. The Great War, nobly named “The War to End All Wars,” in many ways altered the world completely. More remarkably, its unintended consequences still ravage the world today. They can be seen in the war now destroying Syria, in the battles in Ukraine, in the Islamist uprisings in Iraq and Egypt – even in the enmity between Iraqis in the country’s south and in the independence that the Kurds in its north demand. Russia’s continued semi-isolation from Western powers, the ongoing conflict between Iran and the U.S., and the war now being fought between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza – all are long-lived political and territorial byproducts of the Great War 100 years ago.

These are the scars made when the Allies first took and then destabilized the Middle East by overturning the Ottoman Empire, and the scars have never really healed. Every so often they rip open again and a new series of conflicts erupts, festering in and destabilizing the outer regions and the battlegrounds of the Great War.

Great War, Greater Oil

England’s Lord Curzon toasted the Allies’ triumph with the line, “The Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.”

It was a great thing for modern economies when the Oil Age kicked into gear and modernized the world. It was quite another thing when that same Oil Age modernized warfare – which was the most obvious difference between the Great War and every other conflict before it.

Further, the Allies quickly realized that in disposing of the Ottoman Empire we were also gaining future gas stations in the Middle East; with that in mind, they drew artificial lines creating new countries and put numerous governments in place to issue and honor oil contracts. But they created those new “countries,” seemingly, in complete ignorance of the ethnic and religious differences between the peoples that those lines made citizens of the same new states.

Then again, the governments put in place by our Western liberal democracies were anything but the same for the inhabitants of those new countries. One-hundred years later, those are the wars we watch on the nightly news today.

War and the Auto Industry

The Great War also changed Detroit in many ways that aren’t apparent to anyone who doesn’t know our automotive history. At the age of 26 Henry Ford had come to believe in reincarnation; he often told close friends that in his former life he had been a soldier killed during the Civil War. That deeply held belief kept Ford a lifelong pacifist and anti-war activist. So much so that, in December of 1915, he chartered and sailed the Oscar II to Europe, full of like-minded individuals, in a noble but foolish attempt to stop the madness. Ford had even met with President Woodrow Wilson and asked that he endorse Ford’s peace mission. Wilson politely declined. Ford’s heart was in the right place, he believed, but it was still a fool’s errand.

James Couzens, Ford’s partner and the man most responsible for Ford Motor Company’s success, was born in Canada and moved to the U.S. in 1890. Having been born into the British Commonwealth, he was eager for the United States to enter (and help salvage) the war effort. This eagerness, as you can imagine, led him and the pacifist Ford into the first real conflicts they’d ever experienced in their working relationship.

Realizing that Ford wasn’t at all favorably impressed by his patriotism for his native country and for the Allied cause, Couzens resigned his position.

Those who understand the history of Ford know that James Couzens had been the one linchpin maintaining the company’s economic and political balance, the anchor to Ford’s sometimes erratic genius. Once Couzens removed himself from day-to-day operations, Henry Ford — once one of America’s most admired businessmen and a true “power of the people” populist — began his multi-decade decline as a complete autocrat.

Worse, Couzens also had been Ford’s financial genius. When the major recession of 1920 struck, a direct consequence of our country’s changing from a war economy back to a civilian one, lacking Couzens’ steadying hand Ford decided to cut costs by firing his entire accounting staff. That one move ensured the Ford Motor Company’s near-death experience, during the Great Depression, and its feeble health up until the Second World War started.

Mass Extinction Events

Over at General Motors, CEO Billy Durant also wanted nothing to do with the Great War. He didn’t oppose it based on any personal objection to the conflict; he wanted it gone because it was bad for business. But Walter Chrysler was one of GM’s top guns at the time, and he rarely agreed with any direction that Durant wanted to steer the company. One of their conflicting stances concerned whether or not the company should be more involved in the war effort. Chrysler would resign from GM at the end of the war, and not just because Durant had opposed GM’s commitment to it; that was only one of the many issues on which the two automotive geniuses disagreed. Within two years of the end of the conflict, Billy Durant would be thrown out of the automotive giant he had created and the era of Alfred Sloan’s GM began.

Horace and John Dodge, two of America’s other automotive giants in that period, lost their lives not in the war but because of it. While it’s estimated that 15 to 17 million civilians and soldiers died fighting in the Great War, new and surviving soldiers picked up and spread the flu pandemic of 1918 around the globe.

My own grandfather was one of 4,500 Americans sent into Northern Russia to fight in their Bolshevik Revolution; while his ship was sailing there the Spanish Flu was causing many burials at sea. Harold was lucky to survive: The Spanish Flu is estimated to have killed far more people than the Great War itself, possibly 50 – 100 million people worldwide.

But our American doughboys returned home to Detroit carrying it, and both Dodge brothers caught the Spanish influenza. John died on January 14, 1920. His brother Horace, who had recovered from the flu but never really regained his health, passed away before that year ended. The Dodge Motor Company closed. It would later be purchased and reopened by Walter Chrysler.

For Some It Never Ended

It is a great poetic irony that “The War to End All Wars” greatly improved the world only by ending and, except for Russia, making its combatants put aside their differences. Yet the same 1919 Peace Treaty of Paris that purported to end the Great War amicably created more problems than had existed before that conflict began. Those problems are the ones we see recurring today in the Ukraine and across much of the Middle East.

So what, if any, positive effects did the Great War bring about? It announced that America had stepped up and taken its place as the world’s sole superpower. It effectively marked the beginning of the endgame of both the British and French Empires. And it moved the Oil Age into high gear, giving that commodity not only more value but also superpower status.

One result of the conflicts fought simultaneously inside Detroit’s boardrooms was that they destroyed the previous structure. What the new principals rebuilt was the automotive industry we know today.

So the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Great War is more significant than one might believe today. Many people in the regions where that war was fought are still fighting battles for supremacy today – no closer to an everlasting peace than they were in November of 1918.

© Ed Wallace 2014 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail:; read all of Ed’s work at

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