Thoughts on Teaching World War I: Some Frames of Reference for 21st Century Kansans
This past semester, I offered a World War I colloquium (see below reading list) for the first time. After two weeks of historiography, I chose to focus on the Western Front, emphasizing the British Expeditionary Force’s role. Rather than a war-wide survey, I opted for a narrower focus that would reveal multiple and sometimes conflicting impressions of the same people and events, yet one that covered the war’s full duration. As English language sources and criticism thereof have most often informed U.S. awareness of those events, the BEF thus seemed like the place to start. That the most important American critique of World War I literature, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, focuses on the British — rather than the American — experience speaks to the relative belatedness and brevity of the latter.
One problem with any military history course is that no one can fully understand combat save combat veterans, and even their individual experiences might differ radically from those of soldiers several hundred yards away. Empirical data, no matter how comprehensive, tends to addresses the “how big” while either glossing over the “what,” or addressing it in terms so abstract that the message often gets lost. In the end, enormity is usually more than an expression of the readily quantifiable. But since most of the colloquium participants were not veterans, that was where I started. Another hurdle when teaching about this particular war is that very few of my students have ever spent any time in Europe, where war memorials listing upwards of fifty KIA appear so frequently in villages of no more than several hundred souls. So, too, are Operation Iraqi Freedom, Vietnam, World War II, and even Korea much more a part of their American military consciousness.
With that said, the following frames of reference from our readings and discussions proved better than nothing. During the Great War of 1914-1918, Great Britain lost twice as many in killed and missing as in next world war, with which my students are more familiar. Add to those 732,000 combat fatalities approximately 155,000 deaths from the influenza pandemic of 1918, subtract the total from a national population of 46 million, contextualize it all with the pervasive strategic indecision of semi-permanent positional warfare, and a useful thumbnail sketch begins to emerge. Hiding from all of that — even though the British Army did not resort to conscription until March 1916 — was next to impossible, memoirists’ complaints about an out-of-touch home front notwithstanding. At 80,823 square miles in area, Great Britain covers about the same amount of space as Kansas, at 82,277 square miles. But the Kansas most of my colloquium discussants call home has a population of 3 million, as opposed to Great Britain’s 1914 population of around 46 million. Except on the moors and in the fenlands, cities, towns and villages dot its landscape, making the sort of physical isolation that even today’s American Midwesterners take for granted impossible. Not only did the British suffer more, but news of the suffering traveled more quickly.
Not that we Americans see our own World War I experience as a postscript; our involvement marked our emergence as a world power, no matter how our European allies viewed it. Undergraduates in my lower division America from 1865 survey course must encounter this turning point as well, but in only two hours rather than the 42 available in a specialized colloquium. Comparing the carnage of a century ago with more recent frames of reference is therefore even more crucial. Upon seeing images of the Tower of London’s moat filled with poppies, an underclassmen recently wondered aloud “why the Brits make such a big deal out of something that happened so long ago.” To say that it isn’t that long ago if you’re British — or if you’re a historian — is never enough for people who are not yet thinking historically. On the other hand, my students do know about the current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan; some have or have had relatives deployed there, and I usually have two or three veterans of those wars in each survey section. There is another connection: one of our former ROTC instructors serving as an advisor to the Iraqi Army died in a firefight well after the U.S. disengaged its ground troops in 2011. Our university’s current cadets know of him, and I usually have two or three cadets in each of my surveys. Their officers tell them that death in combat is always a possibility, and presumably that our current wars have claimed 6,847 American lives since 2001. Significant though that is for today’s would-be combat arms leaders and their loved ones, it pales in comparison to the roughly 19,000 dead and 57,000 total casualties sustained by the British on 1 July 1916 alone. Similarly, students familiar with our university’s scaled down Vietnam Memorial, if not the 58,307 people it memorializes, might see the 53,191 U.S. combat deaths of World War I as roughly parallel in scale. Parallel, that is, until I remind them that (1) all but a handful of the latter total happened not in sixteen years, but in five months, and that (2) the influenza outbreaks of 1918 claimed over 63,000 additional lives in the U.S. military.
Herwig, Holger, ed. The Outbreak of World War I: Causes and Responsibilities. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. ISBN: 0-669-41692-4. (ppr.)
Brose, Eric Dorn. The Kaiser’s Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany during the Machine Age, 1870-1918. London: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN: 0-19-514335-3. (ppr.)
Ellis, John. Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. ISBN: 0-8018-3947-5. (ppr.)
Griffith, Paddy. Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack, 1916-1918. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. ISBN: 0-300-06663-5. (ppr.)
Barnett, Correlli. The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War. First published in 1963. Reprint edition: Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975.
Coffman, Edward M. The War to End All Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I. First published in 1968. Reprint edition: Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986. ISBN: 0-299-10964-x. (ppr.)
Jünger, Ernst. Storm of Steel. First published in 1921 as In Stahlgewittern; seventh revision, translated by Michael Hofmann: New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2004. ISBN: 978-0-14243-790-2.
Graves, Robert. Goodbye to All That. First published 1929. Reprint edition: New York: Anchor Books, 1998. ISBN: 0-385-09330-6. (ppr.)
Carrington, Charles. Soldier from the Wars Returning. First published in 1965. Reprint edition: Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-47384-184-0. (ppr.)
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. First published in 1975. Reprint edition: London: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-1951-3332-3.
Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War: Explaining World War I. New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN: 0-465-05712-8. (ppr.)
Thanks for your observations, John. I’m preparing a sophomore level Honors course on WW1 for non-History majors and was paralyzed with fear over what book(s) to assign. It begs the question: what’s the best single volume on the Great War? I ended up assigning Adam Hochschild “To End All Wars” not because it’s great History (it’s not), but it’s an engrossing narrative that captures themes like loyalty, duty, and honor, from a variety of perspectives. It will be a good jumping off point for studying the war and I’ll supplement that book with articles, lectures, and the like.
In preparing for the course I read John Keegan’s “This First World War,” Robert Zieger, “America’s Great War,” Michael Neiberg’s “Dance of the Furies,” and Jennifer Keene’s “World War I.” I chose these titles (and there’s more on the list I have yet to get to) to get a smattering of military, homefront, US, and Europe. Still, I feel woefully ignorant.
As a general conversation starter, which one book would you suggest somebody start with to begin their foray into the Great War? For me Zieger’s book might be a good bet, although I can’t remember how well David Kennedy’s “Over Here” holds up.