Remember WWI?

I’m copying a group email discussion here because it’s interesting and deserves to be saved for posterity.  Hog began it with a link to a Washington Post article and a book reference, and MadDog continues it with a wonderful account of his latest research project involving WWI and some relevant book references.  Hog’s beginning email is at the bottom of this post:

Dear Mike, AKA cpthog,

Thank you on this Memorial Day for taking the time to inform us of a largely forgotten incredible catastrophe, WWI, which took place less than a century ago. I found the Washington Post article interesting, and it looks like Jeff Shara has written a fine book. And for personal reasons I must respond.

I’ve been poring over WWI things for the past several months. It all stems from the archival work I’ve been doing here at the Institute of Historical Survey. Late last summer I was assigned to compile a bibliography of the books that had been donated to IHS by Professor Charlotte M. Kinch, also known as Charlotte M. Davis.

She taught history at the University of Maryland, Emory University, and at the College of Santa Fe. She did contract work on the history of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) for the U. S. Government’s Military History Division. She also had a research interest in the German Socialist Party (SPD) from about 1890 to 1924, specifically the SPD’s ideas concerning women’s issues and education.

Many of those ideas were published in a now defunct journal, Die Neue Zeit. Otherwise, most of Charlotte’s large collection of books dealt with WWI. These included a set of about 18 volumes that she collaborated upon that deal with gas or chemical warfare as it pertained to the AEF in 1918. These volumes are U. S. Military Government documents.

However, many of her library books are popular histories, memoirs of generals, journalists, soldiers, and other eyewitnesses of WWI. Several volumes were in French or German. Once I finished the bibliography, I began listing her personal papers, letters, etc. and organizing them into archival boxes. Sometimes I needed to do a bit of research of my own in order to figure out what something was, where it belonged, and the like.

I guess being a nerd for history, archives, libraries, and books, I got personally interested. But I did not find that this material on WWI was boring as one might sense based on the Washington Post article. I’m sure, though, that the war was a horrible experience for those who had to fight in it as the article and book indicate. And now it is indeed a little nice that Cpl Buckles is getting some long overdue recognition. There is also a British Vet, Harry Patch, nearly 110, who is said to be the last surviving soldier who actually saw combat on the Western Front in WWI. There is a very interesting article about him on the wikipedia

You know, over 50,000 casualties in a few months of 1918, that was pretty bad. I’ve read stories about the bull-headed generals and civilian leaders who sent thousands needlessly to their deaths. Great Britain’s armies lost ten times this many, over 500,000, in just a few weeks in the autumn of
1917 at Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, in the Flanders part of Belgium. A damning book of how this happened is ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Leon Wolff, an American. It’s an incredible story.

Another book on the incompetence of military leaders and political corruption, mostly in France, at the time, is by Richard M. Watt, entitled ‘Dare Call it Treason’. Compared to other countries losses, America’s were indeed small. Countries like Belgium, Britain (including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India, etc.), France, Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Romania, Turkey, the Balkan countries, and elsewhere suffered immensely. Many of these countries counted casualties
in the millions.

But countries with smaller armies, like America, also suffered casualties at extremely high rates.  Fortunately for us, America wasn’t there long enough to keep pumping all its men into the trenches.
Also, America made a lot of money supplying the allied armies. WWI began our great tradition as a nation of war profiteers.

I’ve yet to read ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ [Im Westen nichts Neues], by Erich Maria Remarque. Remarque never actually saw combat, but then neither did Stephen Crane in the Civil War. I have read another novel about a foot soldier in the trenches. It’s called ‘Zero Hour’ [Fahnenjunker Volkenborn], by Georg Grabenhorst.

This book, first published in 1928, is based on the author’s personal experiences in the German Army. It’s quite good and very realistic. I particularly like the way it brings real situations and characters to life. This book covers more than just life in the trenches. His descriptions of buildings, towns, trains, people and nature remind me a lot of the writing of Hermann Hesse, author of ‘Steppenwolf’.

Some of the character descriptions bring to mind people we have met ourselves. It’s like reading about life in a parallel universe, I guess. It was reprinted a couple of years ago by the University of South Carolina Press. It’s available on Amazon at  I found a 1929 English language edition at the library here in Las Cruces.

A good brief general history of WWI is A.J.P. Taylor’s ‘History of the First World War’. The edition with pictures goes by the title ‘The Illustrated History of the World Wars’, and includes WWII as well. Two
great books on the beginnings and backgrounds of WWI are the very good and famous ‘The Guns of August’ by Barbara Tuchman; and ‘The Long Fuse’ by Laurence Lafore.

I’m just beginning to get interested in the subject and the history of the world at the turn of the century, 19th & 20th. I’m sure there are very many more good and interesting books and articles on this tiny part of the great tale of human folly & madness.

Coming back to America’s role in WWI, I enjoyed reading ‘The Millionaires’ Unit’ by Marc Wortman. It tells how a group of wealthy students at Yale University virtually founded the first American flying units on their own. Their eventual success certainly depended on their being young, rich, and
foolhardy adventurers.

A book that I haven’t read yet, I’ve just checked it out, is a personal memoir by Pittsburgh author Hervey Allen, entitled ‘Toward the Flame’. It appears that he was a foot soldier on the Western
Front. I believe in getting lots of different peoples perspectives on things. It would be nice to get birds and dogs and insects perspectives too. We can only imagine those.

I think wars are caused by idiots: their idiots and our idiots. We have to pay taxes to keep these idiots in power and pay for the elections to re-elect them. Eventually everything will fall down somehow, but then it will start all over again with new idiots just like the old ones. We have all served a bunch of damned idiots who have been smarter than us because they’ve sent cannon fodder like us out to die so that they can maintain their rich and luxurious lifestyles. It seems that enough of us always wind up believing their propaganda and getting on their band wagons to ensure their ongoing success. Why should it ever change?

It has always been that way and it always will be that way. It’s just human nature. There is nothing new under the sun. Everything is new under the sun. And I don’t think we are getting any smarter, though many will say that we are.

Mad Dog

> Why Didn’t We Listen to Their War Stories?
> By Edward G. Lengel Sunday, May 25, 2008
> AR2008052302455.html?hpid=opinionsbox1
> …World War I was hardly a forgettable conflict; during six months
> in 1918, 53,513 Americans were killed in action — almost as many as
> in Vietnam, and over a much shorter period of time…
> Readers might check out To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World
> War by Jeff Shaara
> ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1211807150&sr=1-8
> Thoughtful in Grove City



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2 Responses to “Remember WWI?”

  1. dmills Says:

    Continuing the discussion, here’s a follow-up email from Doug Gitt:

    Wolff’s “In Flanders Field” is a must-read, as American history neglects the “other” sides in WWI.

    In 1999, I visited Verdun, most notably the French military cemetery and Ft. Douamont. The ossuary in the cemetery holds the remains, bones and bone fragments, of thousands and thousands of (just) the unidentified.

    More remains are regularly found.

    Even today, WWI devastation is mind-boggling. For example, farmers plowing in WWI battlefields place wind-socks in the middle of fields they are plowing. Should they hit an unexploded WWI gas shell with their plows, they then know which way to run, upwind. Even today, farmers and others are injured when they hit an unexploded WWI artillery shell.

    Stacks of unexploded ordinance are routinely seen in the corners
    of fields, awaiting the government disposal teams. There are acres of now forested lands that are posted off-limits because of unexploded ordinance and human remains.


  2. John Smoler Says:

    My brother and I visited Verdun in 1961 with my sister who was living in Nancy, France at that time. It was an eye opening experience for a 12 year old.
    In addition to what Doug recalls, I remember a collapsed trench with bent rifles protruding from the dirt, the soldiers were burried in place. Monuments along country roads consisting of a hundred or so stones, all that was left of the village being commemorated. Literally shelled off the face of the earth.
    The survival story of the defenders of Ft Douamont after their glass water storage vessels had all shattered from the German artillery bombardments.
    Peeping into the bared windows at ground level of the ossuary and seeing a room full of femurs, skulls or clavicles that were from the unidentified dead.


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