World War I

I have recently noticed a considerable increase in the number of books dealing with World War I. When I was in school beginning in the 1930s through the 1940s very little time was spent on this war. The Civil War took up quite a bit of time and when we got through that it was a rush to get through the rest of our history. College was not much better.

The first book I read on WW I was The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman written in 1962. It was recently released again in paperback, so I bought one and reread it. Aside from refreshing my limited knowledge of the German invasion of Belgium (whose neutrality they had guaranteed with France and Belgium) to enter France north of their defense line, what jumped out to me were the German atrocities against Belgian and French citizens in their line of march. They shot, stabbed, beat and burned alive in buildings people to make the rest submissive. I had previously attributed this kind of activity to Nazis in WW II, but it was army policy in WW I.

The need to crank the violence into our minds is shown by the casualties of the various armies in dead, wounded and missing. For Germany the number was about 5,592,000 killed and wounded (52% of those involved), for Austria Hungary, 4,820,000 (74%), French Empire, 5,651,000, (75%) British Empire approximately 3,000,000, and Russia 6,650,000 (55%).

I recently read Dreadnaught, by Robert Massie (1000 pp) which was an excellent discussion of the mostly German and British men who managed the naval run for supremacy. Most recently I read To Conquer Hell, by Edward Lengel, the story of the American attack on the Meuse Argonne front beginning in September,1918 and lasting until the Armistice in November. It goes in great detail about each aspect of the attack (I don’t think he missed a death). Between Tuchman and Lengel, I have both beginning and end and I don’t want to go into any more deaths and military stupidity in the war in France.

One other recent example is The Ring of Steel, by Alexander Watson (832 pages) which covers the Austria-Hungarian and German armies in their war on the eastern front. These are just some of the books, mostly by British scholars, that have been released on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW I.

The number of deaths laid out in his descriptions of stupid tactics (up and out of the trenches into the barbed wire and machine guns) by Lengel has probably put me off from reading any more about WW I. However, for those who can stomp through hunger, pain and gore, there are a number of scholarly studies of more aspects of this demonstration of human stupidity.

There is no question that this struggle set the stage for the next one which can be said to be continuing. The question is how do we teach our history which gets more complex as we delve into it. My guess is that a majority of Americans have no idea of WW I and that majority grows larger every year.

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