In a recent post, Tree Hugging, I mentioned World War One during a discussion of the poet, Joyce Kilmer, who died in combat during that war. And then yesterday evening I happened to catch a report on the historical ignorance of many young Americans. The reporter had asked a sampling of high school and college students a few seemingly simple questions, among them: When did World War One take place? and Whom did the United States fight in World War One? According to the reporter, a significant majority could not answer either question accurately. He said if they came within five or ten years on the first question he gave them credit, and he did the same on the second question if they could name just one of the enemy combatants. By the way, he asked similar questions about World War Two, sadly with similar results. How did Edmund Burke put it? “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.”(Burke, by the way, was the first to say this, long before similar words were uttered by the philosopher, George Santayana, who often gets the credit.) All of this got me thinking once again about this surprising war. I call it "surprising" because at the time it seemed to take so much of the world by surprise.Over the years I've actually collected quite a few books on World War One, and during the past few months I've been reading (and rereading) a few of them. Of course, Barbara Tuchman's award-winning history, The Guns of August (1962), tells the dramatic story of the months immediately prior to World War One. As I recall I first read the book during my last week of freedom before entering the U. S. Naval Academy in June 1963.
Have you thought much about World War One lately? After all, last year we celebrated, if I may use that word, the centennial of the start of that war in August 1914. And for the next three years many books and articles addressing the war and its causes and consequences will doubtless appear. Some will be written by authors bent on viewing the past through the filters of their present-day ideologies. But I expect a good number will be written by historians and others who will make a sincere effort to uncover and present the truth about the conflict and those who took part.
|Over the top: Into the Valley of Death|
|Irish Troops in the Trenches: Somme|
|In the Trenches: the Living among the Dead|
I also found Joseph Persico's book on the war's climatic ending, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour (2004), a fascinating read. This book fills a historical void by describing the final day of the war in remarkable detail.
Historian Margaret MacMillan wrote about the Paris peace talks of 1919 and the resulting Treaty of Versailles which, instead of ensuring World War One was "the war to end all wars" actually set the stage for the even greater destruction of World War Two. Her book, Paris 1919, gives the reader a front-row seat at the six months of talks that set that stage for another century of conflict that remains with us today.
|J.R.R. Tolkien and the Trenches of World War One|
|H. H. Munro ("Saki")|
And lastly, about 30 years ago, while nosing about in a now-defunct local bookstore in Harwich on Cape Cod (Staten Hook Books), I came across several copies of the monthly publication, Current History. First published in 1914 by the New York Times, it is still published today but by a private publisher. Anyway, I found a dozen copies dating from 1915 through 1920 and purchased them all at a dollar apiece. Each issue consists of about 200 pages of articles, commentary, photographs, and political cartoons on the war, its causes, and its aftermath. The issues covering the peace talks and the formation of the League of Nations are particularly fascinating and include complete speeches and commentary by many of the actual participants. I was also intrigued by the articles covering the revolution in Russia as it was happening. Just to give you an idea of the content of these monthlies, I've included a few covers (below) from 1917 and 1919. (Click each to enlarge.)