Experts Weigh In on 100th Anniversary of World War I
Texas Tech professors discuss how the Great War changed the world and why it still matters.
Written by John Davis
The assassination as illustrated by Achille Beltrame of the Italian newspaper Domenica del Corriere, 12 July 1914.
Going to visit an officer wounded earlier that day by a bomb hurled at the couple’s vehicle, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s driver turned down a road that would lead not only to the couple’s assassination, but also down the path to the world’s first global war.
Starting on July 28, 1914 and ending Nov. 11, 1918, today marks a century since the beginning of World War I.
Known initially in America as the European War, World War I sucked in all of the great economic powerhouses of the time into a technologically advanced theater that killed 9 million combatants in four years and served as a discordant marker of man’s great progress in technology.
Yet, despite the scope of the world’s first Great War, the event doesn’t receive the same attention in the United States as World War II. Many people recognize the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania as the turning point that helped to convince a mainly isolationist United States to join the fray years after it had begun.
Today in the United States, the Great War serves more as a footnote in history books, upstaged by America’s involvement in the Second World War. However, Europeans take a more reverent view, and they, along with many scholars, see the two World Wars not as two separate conflicts, but two acts of the same play. We asked Texas Tech University experts how World War I changed the world and why it still matters a century later.
War to End All Wars
Aliza Wong, associate dean of the Honors College and an associate professor of history, will teach an undergraduate class on World War I this fall. Currently in Great Britain, she said she has seen several of the tributes dedicated to those who served during World War I and recently toured the newly reopened Imperial War Museum, which features an exhibit commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Great War’s beginning.
“An extraordinary number of people, from school-age children to senior citizens, from Britain to the rest of the world, people were lined up to see this interactive educational exhibit,” she said. “Across Europe, Europeans are taking this moment to remember why the Great War was indeed great and significant.”
Wong said she believes the Great War means more to Europeans because it was fought in their own countries, in their cities and in their countryside, and the death and destruction left behind because of the marvels of technology of the time left an indelible mark in each country’s psyche.
America declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917. The first U.S. troops didn’t arrive in France until June, and it wasn’t until the spring of 1918 that the Selective Service Act the U.S. was able to send substantive numbers of troops to aid the Allies.
“I think you need only look at the casualty rates, the ravaged landscapes, the cities destroyed, the societies, economies, cultures and the arts that are transformed by the experience to see why WWI is still the Great War in Europe,” Wong said. “To understand ‘total war,’ take a look at the WWI photos of the trenches, the cemeteries, the bodies strewn in the water, the rats, the amputees, the shell-shocked, the women in pants doing so-called ‘men’s’ work. The 13- and 14-year-olds stood at the recruiting offices, the hungry, the cold, the tired.
“Then take a look at the WWII photos of London during the raids, the ravages of the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union, the corpses in the death camps, the destruction of Dresden, Berlin, Warsaw – and you begin to understand the European perspective on war, their understanding of the cost of conflict, the promise of glory, the horrors of destruction, the unheralded heroism, the wreckage of death, torn families, orphaned children, the exhaustion of rebuilding, and the lengths to which we will go, good and bad.”
Wong said the First World War represents an example of the first of the total wars that mobilized people on all fronts. While there still appears to be a definable home front and war front, the shortage in food, and the desperation of the war of attrition, men and women, young and old are mobilized from the countryside to urban centers.
Every life is touched by the war, she said, whether by actual combat, work, eating, living, family life or education. Not only are nations brought into the war, but also empires are called into action, particularly in Britain, which called on the colonies in Asia, Africa, and the commonwealth nations.
However, one of the greatest changes to take place in World War I is the use of technology to destroy. As different militaries put to use new weapons of destruction, it became clear that man has succeeded in learning to kill each other on a scale never seen before.
“Artillery, shells, bombs, gas, later the use of planes, — never before had destruction been so easily attained in such staggering numbers and in such visible, visceral ways,” Wong said. “Even as the military command struggled to understand the new-fangled inventions of warfare, soldiers struggled under inexperienced leadership that used old-fashioned tactics in dealing with modern-day warfare. Men with bayonets went up against machine guns. Dogs and horses with gas masks charged forward into the swampy grey mist. Young men promised glory and a Christmas at homes died in the flooded trenches with rats, gangrene, lice, hunger and cold. This war represented the dawn of a new age of conflict. The letters home, the poetry written afterwards, the artwork, music and the sentiments toward the glories of war changed because of this experience.”
The Art of War
The written word also changed dramatically, both during the Great War and after, said Jen Shelton, an associate professor of English who is teaching a graduate-level course on World War I literature this summer will teach an Honors undergraduate seminar on the topic in the fall. Trench poets of the time created their own decidedly off-key brand of verse that rang strangely in the ear when spoken and became a news source for war updates for those who could decipher the poet’s code.
And while the more modern style of literature had been around since the 1880s, the war ensured Victorian literary style would die off as the war came to a close. The truth of the experiences from those who lived through World War I doomed the idealistic Victorian style as nostalgic, and the more realistic modernism became the norm.
“It’s not like this war caused modern literature to occur,” Shelton said. “The war is a kind of a turning point. This is when you could say ‘Here’s full-fledged modern literature.’ If you think of modern lit or any of the modern arts, what they all have in common is that there’s been a break with what went before. There was a time before and now there’s now. There’s not a smooth transition. And because of this rupture, we have to come up with new forms to express this new world we’re living in. The Great War becomes really emblematic of that.”
In many ways, World War I was viewed by those who experienced it in the same way that those in the United States viewed the Vietnam conflict. For many people, the Great War demonstrated clearly the rupture between the nostalgically remembered Victorian Eden and the world of futile trench warfare, lingering shell shock and death on massive scale. Modernist literary practices, already growing along with the new 20th century, offered meaningful ways to capture the experience of the post-war world.
For example, she said, poems such as Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” which details the heroic deaths of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War and vaunts the glory and heroism of a pointless death, now rang empty after the war. Victorian notions of duty, honor and gallantry gave way to the horrors of death by modern technology.
For writers like poet Edmund Blunden who chose not to write in a modern way, he was seen as nostalgic, Shelton said. A choice not to be modern becomes a nostalgic choice, and old pastorals written in a Victorian style at this time yearn for some past that is irrevocably gone.
“There are certainly some really big innovations that wouldn’t have happened without that war. Trench poets had some technical innovation with slant rhyme. In it, the vowels don’t rhyme, so you may rhyme lamb and limb. That doesn’t feel right to the reader, and it combines with the subject matter to make the reader feel uncomfortable. The real thing that trench poets contribute is writing about war in a different way, though. It’s not like Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade.’ Trench poets refuse to do that. They say the way we’re being killed is so pointless and meaningless with no hope of gain that we can’t celebrate it.”
The Price of Innovation
Before the outbreak of war, Wong said that most Europeans saw human progress as good, promising and hopeful. From the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment periods, Europeans saw themselves in a state of constant progress, and progress was almost always seen in a positive light.
The world had moved toward an age of invention, innovation, political progress, more fully representative government, industrialization, movement and sweeping changes, she said. Certainly, there were moments of insecurity, the precariousness of the laborer, the shift from rural to urban living, crime, poverty, illness. However, there were also educational reforms, child labor laws, urban renewal projects, sewer systems, medical advances, refrigeration, department stores, electricity, radio and transportation.
Europe was becoming more interconnected, and with the proper connections and the proper capital, the world could be at your feet.
But then, human progress was turned against itself, and the staggering cost of casualties and destruction ruptured that dream, Wong said. Austria had a 90 percent casualty rate. Germany lost nearly 65 percent. France and Russia had casualty rates of more than 70 percent.
The Russian Revolution, Spanish Influenza, the harsh winter of 1917-1918 and failure of crops also played a role in the high casualty rates.
“The First World War and its horrific destruction, not only of the landscapes of the trenches, but the shell-shocked men who came home, the generation of men who were no more, the men who were missing legs, arms, facial features, who were burned, exhausted, destroyed psychologically, the sheer magnitude of death, and the overwhelming sense of loss of human progress, of human spirit overwhelmed Europe,” Wong said. “The losses were staggering for Europe. All this scientific progress, increased political inclusion, philosophical advances, economic growth, and yet, the First World War put all of it into question.”
All photos licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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