The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

World War One Redux

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 top: Into the Valley of Death
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.
Irish Troops in the Trenches: Somme
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. 
In the Trenches: the Living among the Dead
David Fromkin's 2004 book, Europe's Last Summer, also addresses the period leading up to the war, although the author offers a different and perhaps more controversial explanation of its causes. And while I don't necessarily agree with all of Fromkin's conclusions, he does present an interesting case. 

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
And for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, I recommend John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War (2003). Garth looks to Tolkien's combat service during World War One to uncover the roots of his famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. A young Army lieutenant, Tolkien managed to survive the Somme, a horrendous battle that took the lives of two of his closest friends, along with 300,000 others on both sides. Garth makes a strong case that Tolkien's subsequent writings were greatly influenced by his wartime experiences in which he witnessed first-hand the war's devastation. Another book on a related subject is Joseph Loconte's A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War in which the author examines the influence of World War One on the writings of both Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I have not yet read this book, so I really can't comment on it, but from the reviews I've read, it sounds interesting. I expect it will eventually find its way into my library.

Maurice Baring
But the books I have enjoyed the most are those written by contemporaries, especially those who played an active role in the war. One of my literary heroes, a man too often overlooked, is Maurice Baring. Novelist, poet, playwright, diplomat, world traveler and travel writer, and a close friend of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Baring led a most remarkable and adventurous life. During the war he was a ground officer assigned to the staff of the legendary Boom Trenchard (aka, 1st Viscount Hugh Trenchard) who was busy in France creating the Royal Flying Corps. Closely associated with those early combat aviators, Baring wrote a wonderful book based on his diaries and describing his experiences: R.F.C.  H.Q.  1914-1918. For anyone interested in the early days of military aviation, it's a must read. If you'd like to know more about Baring the man, I suggest reading his fascinating autobiography, The Puppet Show of Memory. He's one of those people you wish you had known.

H. H. Munro ("Saki")
Another of the tragic casualties of World War One was H. H. Munro, the author of so many marvelously funny short stories who wrote under the pen name of Saki. Like Joyce Kilmer, Munro would not accept an officer's commission but decided to enter the Army as a common soldier, even though his age would normally exempt him from service. And like Kilmer he too was killed by a German sniper. Munro was 43 when he entered the Army and 45 when he died. Although I recommend anything written by Munro, I especially enjoyed his short novel, When William Came. Published in 1913, a year before the start of the war, it's a bit of a fantasy describing an authoritarian occupation of Great Britain after it loses a war to Germany. In writing the novel Munro makes the case that in a world where evil exists the best way to ensure peace is to be prepared for war. 

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.)

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