World War I

Monday we in the U.S. lost a living connection to a crucial period in modern history: Frank Buckles, the last living American veteran of World War I, died at his home in West Virginia at the age of 110. The First World War takes a back seat in our imagination and memory to the Second, but it was every bit as overwhelming in its consequences. As a result of the war Europe was devastated. Nearly an entire generation of young French and British men died. The war destabilized the Czarist regime in Russia, enabling the Soviet Union to come into existence. German resentment of the vengeful terms of the peace treaty paved the way for the rise of Nazism.  And in spite of the relatively short period of U.S. involvement in the war (14 months), it was a decisive event for this country as well. The U.S. became the world's leading industrial power and creditor. The government expanded its powers to a degree not seen since the Civil War, and it was the beginning of the end of American isolationism.  Not only was this America's first intervention in a European war, it was also the first time many ordinary Americans saw the Old World--one of the hit songs of 1918 was "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They've Seen Paree)." As with so many other conflicts, a lot of good writing came out of World War I. The young Robert Graves enlisted as a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The product of a conventional Victorian family, Graves was quickly disillusioned by the horrors of war. His Good-Bye to All That is a poignant, wry memoir of life in peace and war, a denunciation of violence, and a scathing critique of British society. Many British officers wrote poetry about their wartime experiences: Anthem for Doomed Youth by Lt. Wilfred Owen What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes. The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. If you would like to read some more poetry from the war, Great Poets of World War I is a good book to start with. You might also want to visit the First World War Poetry Digital Archive. For a glimpse of the war from the perspective of the ordinary German soldier, read All Quiet on the Western Front, arguably the greatest war novel of all time. Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 is another critically acclaimed novel about the First World War, but from a historical perspective (Solzhenitsyn was a veteran of World War II). It's the first novel in his quartet The Red Wheel. A more recent set of historical novels on World War I is Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy, based on the experiences of British officers who were hospitalized for shell shock. Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is considered the classic portrait of the so-called "Lost Generation," those who came of age during and just after the war.  Centered on a disillusioned group of expatriates in Paris and Spain, it deals with people trying to find meaning (or at least escape) in a world in which they've lost all faith. If you're interested in learning about the actual history of the war, a good place to begin is Michael Howard's highly accessible The First World War. For a detailed look at one of the bloodiest battles of the war, try The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War, by the distinguished historian Michael Gilbert. If you would like to know more about the politics at the war's end that helped set the stage for a second World War, pick up the award-winning Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. If you would rather watch than read, check out the fabulous PBS series The Great War. I'll close with a YouTube clip of "Over There:"

Add new comment