The last known World War I veteran has died at the age of 110. Like the fictional Ladies Edith and Sybil Crawley in Downton Abbey, Florence Green crossed the boundaries of social and cultural convention to take the place of men who were fighting on the Western Front. Mrs. Green joined the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) at age 17 to work as a mess steward. In later years, she fondly remembered the officers she served as “perfect gentlemen.” “It was very pleasant and they were lovely,” she said, “not a bit of bother.
As depicted in Season 2 of the BBC series, which takes place during the “Great War,” the human toll was of such a magnitude that it reverberates even today, nearly a century later. The total number of military and civilian deaths was over 35 million, while more than 31 million men were wounded. Like the veterans living and working at Downton Abbey, many were permanently damaged mentally and physically.
The War was a political, cultural, and social cataclysm that created the conditions allowing Nazism and Communism to arise, leading to the deaths of another 100 million between 1920 and 1950 – nearly 3 percent of the world’s population.
The Allies’ desire to punish Germany after the War was undoubtedly a major factor in the rise of Adolf Hitler. The cruel continuation of the naval blockade of Germany for eight months after the War ended killed over a quarter of a million civilians due to disease and starvation. As Robert Leckie – one of the real life characters in HBO’s The Pacific series – wrote, the blockade did much to “torment the Germans … driving them with the fury of despair into the arms of the devil.”
Abraham Lincoln said, “We cannot escape history.” While Florence Green’s passing mayhave ended a living connection with World War I, its lessons remain relevant today. Politicians who willfully ignore history in the pursuit of misguided foreign wars and blockades will continue the age old cycle of causing suffering for the innocent.