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It’s curious how intensely some writers, especially poets, respond to place. Wordsworth and the Lake Poets, of course, John Clare at Helpston, and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But there are earlier names: William Cowper and Olney, Alexander Pope’s Windsor or Twickenham, Charles Cotton in Derbyshire...
A Test of Wills (Ian Rutledge #1) Charles Todd. 1994/2006. Harper Collins. 305 pages. [Source: Library]
A Test of Wills is the first book in Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series. He has returned home from war--the first world war--and is on his first case. It will prove challenging in more ways than one. First, the war has left him changed--broken, confused, uncertain. Second, the case itself is tricky. One of the suspects is super-friendly with royalty, and there is pressure to solve the case, but, solve it in such a way that there isn't a scandal. He is arriving on the scene several days after the crime, the murder, and he doesn't even see the crime scene or the body. His work mainly has him interviewing anyone and everyone that might have seen something--or heard something. But there aren't many leads that are fruitful. He has a handful of clues, but, the clues lead him to no one person. There's always something off. For example, the person with the best motive, has an alibi that is solid. The people with opportunity have no motive, etc. So can he do it? can he solve the case?
I liked this one well enough. Ian Rutledge is so very, very different from Bess Crawford. (I've read two or three of the Bess Crawford mystery series also by Charles Todd). Both show the effect of the war certainly. Bess Crawford mainly does this through her other characters: Bess is nursing men who have been wounded--sometimes severely--and/or are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. The soldiers we meet in the Crawford mystery series certainly showcase the effect of war. But with the Ian Rutledge series it is completely different. It's an inside-out look, for better or worse. Ian is very broken, very disturbed, and we're in his head for the most part. It was an interesting aspect and added a new level to the mystery.
A Bitter Truth. Charles Todd. 2011. HarperCollins. 352 pages. [Source: Library]
I am continuing to love the Bess Crawford mystery series by Charles Todd. Bitter Truth is the third book in the Bess Crawford series. The book opens with Bess on leave--once again. Bess takes pity on a woman, a stranger, named Lydia. She's distraught and she's clearly been beaten. For better or worse, Bess becomes very involved in a family matter. Good will come out of it perhaps, but, not without sacrifice and risk. For Bess says yes to Lydia's pleas to come home with her, and agrees to pretend to be her long-time friend in front of Lydia's family including her husband, Roger. How will Lydia's in-laws react to her bringing someone home? Surely Roger will mind the interference, right?
The family Bess meets is a strange one in many ways--dysfunctional certainly. But is anyone in the family capable of murder? For that is what we all know it will come down to...a mystery is almost always a murder mystery.
I felt Bess's discomfort throughout the novel. She's witness to some very awkward family scenes. And strangers are confiding in her things that are very personal, almost intimate. Every time Bess tries to leave the family--something happens to prevent it. Though of course, eventually, she does HAVE to leave because she's a nurse stationed in France. Still the family haunts her a bit...
A Bitter Truth is a well-written historical mystery. It wasn't one that I "enjoyed" particularly because enjoy is the wrong word. There was nothing "fun" or "light-hearted" about it. But it was certainly compelling and intense.
The recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the siege in Sydney, and the Canadian parliament attack have heightened fears of the type of home-grown security threats that had been realised earlier in the July 2005 London bombings. Looking to the future, security agencies and governments have warned grimly of battle hardened jihadists returning home from Middle Eastern and North African theatres of war. For better or worse, robust internal security, heightened surveillance, and preventative law enforcement targeting suspect individuals and communities have been presented as unavoidably necessary for democratic states the world over. But in searching for security, these liberal democracies are now confronted with difficult questions about how to provide public safety and state security within the framework of the rule of law. If there are enemies within, how can they be dealt with while still preserving the civil liberties and rights of all citizens? Can the state zero in on a particular segment of the population without actively and illegally discriminating against them? One particularly thorny issue is what to do about those returning from jihadist wars. Can they be stripped of their citizenship and barred from re-entering their old homeland? Is citizenship a privilege to be revoked at will, or does the state have a responsibility to all of its citizens, no matter how unsavoury? Do seemingly exceptional times permit legally exceptional measures?
While the reality of today’s terrorist violence has upped the stakes, these legal dilemmas are not new. Prior to World War I, European states also tussled with the dilemma of what to do with citizens they suspected of disloyal or treasonous intent. One of the central preoccupations of nineteenth century Germany, for example, was what to do with elements of the population viewed as internal enemies of the state, so-called Reichsfeinde. The communities coming under suspicion then might seem surprising today; Catholics, socialists, French, Danes, and Poles. Individuals from these groups who weren’t citizens were simply expelled from the country, but for those who had the rights of a citizen, the situation was far trickier. Germany prided itself on its reputation as a state governed by the rule of law, and the law explicitly forbade capricious measures like expelling citizens. How could a constitutional state find legal ways to put pressure on its internal enemies?
To deal with these domestic threats, German authorities had to be far more inventive, using a host of strictly speaking legal but nonetheless punitive measures to harass suspect populations. Irredentists Danes in the North with German citizenship were targeted for economic ruination; French-speaking Germans were shifted out of their jobs in the militarily sensitive railways of Alsace-Lorraine; Protestant German colonists were sent to dilute the Polish complexion of the east; Jesuits were banned from the Catholic Ruhr; and socialists were pushed out of Berlin, Hamburg, and Leipzig into the countryside. New laws were passed and existing laws were reinterpreted to allow for new repressive uses. The custodians of the German Rechtsstaat sought safety not by side-stepping the law, but by passing and enforcing coercive laws that affected broad segments of the population, in the hope that the actual targets of the laws would be amongst the number affected.
Did these rather blunt internal security measures work? No. In fact, all of this was highly counterproductive. The attitude of Germany’s Danes, Poles, and French towards the German state hardened after being targeted by these legal forms of oppression, while both the socialist and Catholic political milieux went from strength to strength as a result of the experience of being suppressed. Frustrated in particular by his lack of success against the socialists, Bismarck even sought to have their citizenship revoked in the hope of forcing a definitive reckoning with those he saw as dangerous revolutionaries. But this didn’t lead to the destruction of German socialism, but to Bismarck’s own political downfall. The German constitutional state, flexible enough to offer its own forms of legally sanctioned persecution, always baulked at attempts to use unlawful or exceptional measures, despite the air of crisis that surrounded them. Even the measures they did take did little except alienate the broader population.
In their willingness to use violence to pursue their political goals, the jihadists of today are unlike the perceived threats of nineteenth-century Germany. Yet the response of constitutional states bears a remarkable resemblance to these earlier measures. No rolling state of exception or martial law has been declared. Instead, new laws are passed and old ones have been retooled to deal with newly arising threats. Now, as then, the constitutional state, governed by law, has found its own ways to apply pressure to its domestic enemies. Bespoke law, some of it good, some of it horrifying, has stretched but has not severed the commitment to legal and constitutional limits. Warts and all, the liberal constitutional state has shown itself capable of mounting its own stiff defence.
Headline image credit: Security fence by cobalt123. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
February is Black History Month and this year's theme is A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture. It is a good time to look back and reflect on the changes and contributions of African Americans to the fabric of American life in the last century.
Now, J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelly, the same duo who produced the lovely book And the Soldiers Sang, about the Christmas Truce in 1914 during World War I, have written a book introducing us to the brave and talented unsung heroes of the 15thNew York National Guard, which was later federalized as the 369th Infantry Regiment, soldier that the Germans dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters. "because of their tenacity."
In beautifully lyrical prose, Lewis tells how bandleader James "Big Jim" Reese Europe was recruited to organize a new black regiment in New York. Traveling around in an open air double-decker bus, his band played on the upper level, while the new recruits lined up below. Willing to fight like any American, enthusiastic patriotism may have motivated these young men, but racism at home, and in the army resulted in segregation while training and doing the kind of grunt work not given to white soldiers in Europe, even as they entertained tired soldiers with [Jim] Europe's big band jazz sounds.
Each page tells small stories of the 369th: their heroics, homesickness, the bitter cold, the lynchings back home, the fighting on the French front lines. Extending the narrative are Gary Kelly's dark pastel illustrations. Kelly's visual representations of the men of the 369th Infantry are both haunting and beautiful. He has used a palette of earth tones and grays, so appropriate for the battlefields and uniforms of war, but with color in the images of patriotism, such as flags and recruiting posters, and highlighting the reasons we go to war. Some of Kelly's image may take your breath away with their stark depiction of, for example, the hanging figures, victims of a lynching, or the irony of the shadowy faces of people in a slave ship hull, shackles around their necks, on their voyage to America and slavery next to a soldier heading to Europe to fight for freedom and democracy.
Harlem Hellfighters is an exquisitely rendered labor of love, but readers may find it a little disjointed in places. Lewis's fact are right, though, and he also includes a Bibliography for readers who might want to know more or those who just want more straightforward nonfiction books about the 369th Regiment.
As a picture book for older readers, Harlem Hellfighters would pair very nicely with Walter Dean Myer's impeccable researched and detailed book The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage written with Bill Miles. Myer's gives a broader, more historical view of these valiant men. These would extend and compliment each other adding to our understanding and appreciation of what life was like for African American soldiers in World War I.
Both books is recommended for readers age 10+ Harlem Hellfighters was bought for my personal library
Today is the last day of Women's History Month for 2015 and because the theme this year is about Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives, I thought who better to turn to for today's post than Kathryn Atwood. A few year ago, Atwood wrote a fascinating book called Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance and Rescue. Now she has followed it up with a book about women heroes in World War I and once again, their stories are as amazing as they are compelling.
In Women Heroes of World War I, Atwood introduces the reader to some of the women, a few still in their teens, who decided to serve their country, despite the real dangers that they were to face. Some became nurses, caring for the wounded as close to the front lines as they could get. Others joined the resistance or became spies, some became soldiers fighting side by side with men, and still others were journalists, reporting events from the heart of the conflict.
Some of the women are familiar, like British born Edith Cavell who found herself in Belgium when the war started, director of a school of nursing there. After the Germans invaded Belgium, hospitals were forbidden to care for any Allied soldiers that might find their to one of them. Edith, ignoring the Germans, cared for wounded Germans soldiers openly, and for wounded Allied soldiers secretly. And when these were healthy enough, she made such they had safe passage out of Belgium to the Netherlands. Edith and her network can be credited for heroically getting a lot of Allied soldiers to safety before the getting caught by the Germans. Her capture and punishment, which caused an uproar around the world, subsequently changed the way Germany handled women POWs at the insistence of the Kaiser.
One of my favorite stories is Helena Gleichen and her friend Nina Hollings, two ambulance drivers in Italy who sometimes found themselves driving through intense shelling to get wounded men to hospital. Later, after training in Paris to become radiographers, they could be found driving around the Italian front with a portable x-ray machine. With their x-ray skill, Helena and Nina were able to help the wounded in some surprising ways, for example, locating shrapnel lodged in areas that wouldn't have been found otherwise and bringing relief to the wounded man. For their heroic work, the women were awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (the OBE).
My personal favorite is the story of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Yes, I do mean the mystery writer. Mary was also a journalist who wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and in 1915, she decided she wanted to go to Belgium. After all, she had nursing experience and could report of the conditions of the hospitals there, but what she really wanted to do was experience the war as soldiers do. Mary finally did get to see the front lines, including no man's land, and even managed to get an extensive interview with the King of Belgium. Returning home she wrote her articles, but realized the war was going to last longer than anyone thought.
Women Heroes of World War I is a well-written, riveting book. Atwood divides the women's experiences into four sections - Resisters and Spies, Medical Personnel, Soldiers, and Journalists. The women profiled come from different countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Russia and each of their individual stories ends with a Learn More inset listing where to find more information them. Atwood's extensive, intelligent research is evident in all the women's stories and she includes sidebars that give additional information about the women and the war. Also included are an Introduction, an Epilogue and many, many photographs of war and the different women in it. An extensive and useful Glossary and Bibliography, and well as a list of websites can also be found at the back of the book.
World War I was at first greeted with incredible enthusiasm, causing young men to unhesitatingly leave school, jobs, and families to join their countries armed services. After all, no one thought it would last more than a few months. Women were also eager to do their part and for some that meant being in the thick of the fighting, not working on the home front. Women Heroes of World War I not only informs the reader about these now mostly forgotten women heroes, but pays homage to them and all the women who decided to do constructive for their warring countries.
I can't recommend Women Heroes of World War I highly enough, and what a wonderful book with which to end this year's Women History Month.
This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL
Dead Wake. Erik Larson. 2015. Crown. 448 pages. [Source: Library]
Did I enjoy reading Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson? I'm not sure "enjoy" is the right word. But I certainly found it absorbing and compelling. It reads quite quickly despite the large cast of narrators and various perspectives. (I didn't miss a central narrator.)
It is abounding in detail: details about the ship, the captain and crew, the passengers, the cargo, about U-boats (submarines), about the war in Europe, about England, about Germany, about the United States.
One thing in particular that I found fascinating was "Room 40" the oh-so-secret British code-breakers that were decoding German transmissions and such. They were able to keep track of so much and make predictions about where the Germans might strike next. (But no warnings were sent to the Lusitania about all the recent activity by German submarines in their path just hours before.)
Another interesting aspect of the book is the focus on President Wilson--his personal private life and his public life. (Though it would be a huge stretch to say it is the most interesting aspect of the book.) Why was America so reluctant to enter the war? Why were they so sure they could avoid it no matter what? Did the loss of American lives really help change the general perception of the war and make the average American ready to enter the war? If it was, why wait almost two years to declare war?
The book definitely provides readers with a rich perspective of the times. It was suspenseful and full of tension in part because of all the questions that have no easy answers.
Memorial Day is always a poignant moment -- a time to remember and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice made by so many military personnel over the decades -- but this year three big anniversaries make it particularly so. Seventy years ago, Americans celebrated victory in a war in which these sacrifices seemed worthwhile.
An Impartial Witness. Charles Todd. 2010. HarperCollins. 352 pages. [Source: Library]
An Impartial Witness is the second book in the Bess Crawford mystery series by Charles Todd. I love that the series is set during World War I; An Impartial Witness is set in 1917. Bess Crawford is a nurse, and, she's nursing wounded soldiers both abroad and at home. (Bess spends a good amount of time in this novel in France, very close to the front.)
The book opens with Bess arriving in London on leave for thirty-six hours. She's just spent time on a convoy with a wounded soldier--a pilot with severe burns. He keeps holding on because he loves his wife. Her photograph is something he always has close by. She would recognize his wife anywhere she's seen it so often the past few days. But she didn't really expect to see her--this wife--at the train station seeing another soldier off. The scene was VERY emotional, and quite inappropriate if she's the wife of another man. The scene haunts her.
And with good reason, it turns out! For she soon learns that this woman--this wife--is found murdered that evening. She tells what she saw at the train station--several hours before the crime. She describes the man--the soldier--with her. That might have been all...except that she can't stop thinking of the case, of the tragedy of it, and she keeps talking with Scotland Yard about what she learns...
A man is arrested. But is he guilty? She doesn't think so. She really, really doesn't think so. For could she be falling in love with him?! Michael Hart isn't capable of murdering the woman he was supposedly in love with for years, is he?
One hundred years ago, World War I began — the “Great War,” the war “to end all wars.” A war that arose from a series of miscalculations after the assassination of two people. A war that eventually killed 8 million people, wounded 21 million, and disabled millions more — both physically and mentally.
That war sowed the seeds for an even greater war starting two decades later, a war that killed at least 60 million people (45 million of them civilians), wounded 25 million in battle, and disabled many more — a war that led to the development, use, large-scale production, and deployment of nuclear weapons.
Since then, there have been dozens more wars and the continuing threat of thermonuclear war. Statistics reflect the millions of people killed and injured. These statistics are too staggering for us to comprehend, ever more staggering when we realize that these statistics are people with the tears washed off.
It would be nice to think that we, as a global society, had learned the lessons of war and other forms of “collective violence” over the past century. However, although there is evidence that there are fewer major wars today, armed conflict and other forms of collective violence do not seem be abated. The international trade and widespread availability of “conventional weapons,” generations-long ethnic conflict, competition for control of scarce mineral resources, and socioeconomic inequalities and other forms of social injustice fuel this violence.
All too often violence seems to be the default mode of settling disputes between nations. All too often violence, in one form or another, seems to be the way that the powerful maintain power, and the way that the powerless seek it. All too often violence or the threat of violence seems to be the way that national governments — and even law enforcement officers — attempt to maintain security — and the way that “non-state actors” attempt to undermine it.
As we have witnessed over the past several decades, national and international security cannot be maintained over the long term by violence or the threat of violence. National and international security is more likely to be sustained by promoting socioeconomic equalities, social justice, and public participation in government; ensuring educational and employment opportunities for all; protecting human rights and ensuring that the basic needs of everyone are met; and addressing the true enemies of humankind: poverty, hunger, and disease.
Enemy #1: Poverty. More than 46 million people in the United States live below the poverty line, the largest number in the 54 years that the Census has measured poverty. More than 21 million children live in poverty in this country. Globally, about half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day. Poverty is an insidious enemy that robs people of opportunity and worsens their health.
Enemy #2: Hunger. About one out of seven US households are considered “food insecure.” Globally, more than 800 million — one-fourth of people in sub-Saharan Africa — do not have enough to eat. Hunger is a widespread enemy that saps children and adults of their physical and mental capabilities and predisposes them to disease.
Enemy #3: Disease. In the United States, preventable physical and mental illnesses account for much morbidity and mortality. Globally, this is even more true. For example, each year about four million people die of acute respiratory infections, and 1.5 million children die from diarrheal diseases due to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene. New types of infectious agents and micro-organisms resistant to antibiotics continue to emerge. And the Ebola virus is rapidly spreading across several West African countries.
These are the true enemies of humankind.
One hundred years from now, what will people, in 2114, say when they look back on these times? Will they say that we failed to learn the lessons of the previous one hundred years and continued to wage war and other forms of violence? Or will they say that we, as a global society, created a culture of peace in which we resolved disputes non-violently and in which we addressed the true enemies of humankind?
Coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has made us freshly familiar with many memorable sayings, from Edward Grey’s ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, to Wilfred Owen’s ‘My subject is War, and the pity of war/ The Poetry is in the pity’, and Lena Guilbert Horne’s exhortation to ‘Keep the Home-fires burning’.
But as I prepared the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, I was aware that numerous other ‘quotable quotes’ also shed light on aspects of the conflict. Here are just five.
One vivid evocations of the conflict striking passage comes not from a War Poet but from an American novelist writing in the 1930s. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), Dick Diver describes the process of trench warfare:
See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.
This was, of course, on the Western Front, but there were other theatres of war. One such was the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915–16, where many ‘Anzacs’ lost their lives. In 1934, a group of Australians visited Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, and heard an address by Kemal Atatürk—Commander of the Turkish forces during the war, and by then President of Turkey. Speaking of the dead on both sides, he said:
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
Atatürk’s words were subsequently inscribed on the memorial at Gallipoli, and on memorials in Canberra and Wellington.
World War I is often is often seen as a watershed, after which nothing could be the same again. (The young Robert Graves’s autobiography published in 1929 was entitled Goodbye to All That.) Two quotations from ODQ look ahead from the end of the war to what might be the consequences. For Jan Christiaan Smuts, President of South Africa, the moment was one of promise. He saw the setting up of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the war as a hope for better things:
Mankind is once more on the move. The very foundations have been shaken and loosened, and things are again fluid. The tents have been struck, and the great caravan of humanity is once more on the march.
However a much less optimistic, and regrettably more prescient comment, had been recorded in 1919 by Marshal Foch on the Treaty of Versailles,
This is not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for twenty years.
Not all ‘war poems’ are immediately recognizable as such. In 1916, the poet and army officer Frederick William Harvey was made a prisoner of war (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us that he went on to experience seven different prison camps). Returning from a period of solitary confinement, he apparently noticed the drawing of a duck on water made by a fellow-prisoner. This inspired what has become a very well-loved poem.
From troubles of the world
I turn to ducks
Beautiful comical things.
How many people, encountering the poem today, consider that the ‘troubles’ might include a world war?
Headline image credit: A message-carrying pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a British tank, near Albert, France. Photo by David McLellan, August 1918. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non-Commercial License via Wikimedia Commons.
Rags: Hero Dog of WWI, a true story
written by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by Petra Brown
This is the story of a mongrel dog who was surviving by his wits in Paris when he was found by an American soldier named James Donovan during an air raid after the Americans entered WWI.
Private Donovan felt sorry for the hungry, scruffy, scared pup, giving him the very suitable name Rags. When the air raid was over, Donovan took Rags back to his army base, where he was ordered to pack up this gear so he could leave for the battlefield that night. And yes, Rags went with him.
It didn't take long for Rags to become a favorite with the soldiers and to adjust to infantry life in the trenches. He was immediately put to work, chasing mice and rats out of the trench where Donovan was fighting. Donovan was a radio operator and soon Rags was delivering important messages all up and down the trenches.
It didn't take long for Rags to become quite the hero. In October 1918, little more than a month before the war ended, Donovan and Rags were both seriously injured in a terrible battle, but not before Rags got a message through that helps the Allies win the battle. At the army hospital, a kind doctor found Rags and took care of his injuries. From then on, Rags was blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and walked with a limp. Sadly, Donovan did not survive his injuries.
Rags: Hero Dog of WWI is really a picture book for older readers, though there are not real resources at the back of the book. It is well written, but though the story is based on an actual dog, it is really historical fiction. Still, it is an inspiring work and is sure to please kids who like animal stories. By the same token, it introduces the reader to some of the horrors of war in a gentle, age appropriate way.
The soft, muted realistic illustrations by Petra Brown are sure to tug at the heartstrings. I know they did mine.
This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL
Stubby the Dog Soldier, World War I Hero
written by Blake Hoena, illustrated by Oliver Hurst
Like Rags, Stubby (named that because of his stubby tail) was also a scruffy stray who began to follow Private J. Robert Conroy around his army base in New Haven, CT after Conroy had given him some leftover food. Soon, Conroy made a place for Stubby to sleep under his bed and a friendship was born. It didn't take long for Stubby to become the mascot of the 26th Infantry Division and in August 1917, he sailed to France with the soldiers.
On the battlefield, Stubby's keen sense of smell served as a warning when the enemy starting using mustard gas to attack the soldiers. The mustard gas would have burned their skin and lungs so they couldn't breath if Stubby hadn't warned them. Soon, the soldiers learned to follow Stubby's cues. He sense of hearing warned them when a bomb was coming so they could take cover, and he even helped capture a German soldier crawling over no man's land to drop a grenade in the trenches.
When the war ended, Conroy went to Georgetown Law and Stubby went with him, becoming the football team's mascot. Stubby died in 1926.
Stubby the Dog Soldier, World War I Hero is a similar story to that of Rags, but for younger readers. It too is well written and straightforward, with back matter that includes a glossary, books for further reading and even a Critical Thinking using the Common Core section.
Oliver Hurst's oil painted and pencil folk art type illustrations are done in a palette of browns, greens and blues, giving Stubby's story a real feeling of the battlefield, where I don't imagine there were too many bright colors anywhere, since soldiers was to blend in the background.
This book is recommended for readers age 5+
This book was received from the publisher
Dogs were not officially used in World War I, but both Rags and Stubby were two of the exceptions. In fact, each received a write-up in the New York Times when they died.
You can read the obituary for Rags HEREand Stubby's HERE(oddly located at the bottom of the page about the Metropolitian Museum of Art)
Time passes quickly. As we track the progression of events hundred years ago on the Western Front, the dramas flash by. In the time it takes to answer an e-mail the anniversary of another battle has come and gone.
We have celebrated the fumbling British skirmishes at Mons and Le Cateau in late August, but largely forgotten the French triumph at the Battle of the Marne which first stemmed and threw back the German wheeling attack through Belgium into Northern France under the Schlieffen Plan. We have already bypassed the spirited Franco-British attempts at the Battle of the Aisne in September to take the Chemin des Dames. The Race to the Sea was under way: the British and German Armies desperately trying to turn their enemy’s northern flank.
Throughout, the performance of the British Expeditionary Force has often been exaggerated. Imaginative accounts of Germans advancing in massed columns and being blown away by rapid rifle fire are common. A rather more realistic assessment is that the British infantry were steadfast enough in defence, but unable to function properly in coordination with their artillery or machine guns. The Germans seemed to have a far better grip of the manifold disciplines of modern warfare.
Yet everything changed in October. The Germans were scraping the barrel for manpower and decided to throw new reserve formations into the battle. Young men with the minimum of training, incapable of sophisticated battle tactics. They were marched forward in a last gambler’s throw of the dice to try and break through to the Channel Ports. To do that they needed first to capture the small Belgian city of Ypres.
One might have thought that Ypres was some fabled city, fought over to secure untold wealth or a commanding tactical position. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ypres was just an ordinary town, lying in the centre of the fertile Western Flanders plain. Yet the low ridges to the east represented one of the last feasible lines of defence. The British also saw the town, not as an end in itself, but as a stepping stone to more strategically important locations pushing eastwards, such as the rail centre at Roulers or the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge. For both sides Ypres was on the road to somewhere.
The battle began in mid-October and soon began to boil up. Time and time the Germans hurled themselves forward, the grey-green hordes pressing forwards and being shot down in their hundreds. The British had learnt many lessons and this was where they finally proved themselves worthy adversaries for the German Army. On the evening of 23 October young Captain Harry Dillon was fighting for his life:
A great grey mass of humanity was charging, running for all God would let them, straight on to us not 50 yards off. Everybody’s nerves were pretty well on edge as I had warned them what to expect, and as I fired my rifle the rest all went off almost simultaneously. One saw the great mass of Germans quiver. In reality some fell, some fell over them, and others came on. I have never shot so much in such a short time, could not have been more than a few seconds and they were down. Suddenly one man – I expect an officer – jumped up and came on. I fired and missed, seized the next rifle and dropped him a few yards off. Then the whole lot came on again and it was the most critical moment of my life. Twenty yards more and they would have been over us in thousands, but our fire must have been fearful, and at the very last moment they did the most foolish thing they possibly could have done. Some of the leading people turned to the left for some reason, and they all followed like a great flock of sheep. We did not lose much time, I can give you my oath. My right hand is one huge bruise from banging the bolt up and down. I don’t think one could have missed at the distance and just for one short minute or two we poured the ammunition into them in boxfuls. My rifles were red hot at the finish. The firing died down and out of the darkness a great moan came. People with their arms and legs off trying to crawl away; others who could not move gasping out their last moments with the cold night wind biting into their broken bodies and the lurid red glare of a farm house showing up clumps of grey devils killed by the men on my left further down. A weird awful scene; some of them would raise themselves on one arm or crawl a little distance, silhouetted as black as ink against the red glow of the fire. [p. 287-288, Fire & Movement, by Peter Hart]
Some of the Germans had got within 25 yards of Dillon’s line. It had been a close run thing and after they had been relieved by the French later that night the French reported that some 740 German corpses littered the ground in front of his trenches. This was the real war: not a skirmishes like the earlier battles, this was the real thing.
The German attacks continued, followed as day follows night, by French and British counter-attacks to restore the situation. The Germans nibbled at the Allied line but were unable to achieve anything of importance. Yet for all the sound and fury, over the next few days the front line stayed relatively static. The German troops were flagging in their efforts. After one last effort on 11 November the Germans threw in the towel. They would not break through the Allied lines in 1914. The British and French lines had held. Battered, bruised, but unbroken. The First Battle of Ypres had confirmed the strategic victory gained by the French at the Marne. The German advance in the west had been blocked, if they sought victory in 1915 they would have to look to the east and attack Russia.
The 1914 campaign would prove decisive to the war. The utter failure of the Schlieffen Plan, designed to secure the rapid defeat of France, meant that Germany would be condemned to ruinous hostilities on two fronts. This was the great turning-point of the whole war. The pre-war predictions from the German strategists that they could not prevail in a long-drawn out war against the combined forces of France and Russia proved accurate, especially when the British Empire and United States joined the fight. The German Army fought with a sustained skill and endurance, but after 1914, the odds really were stacked against them.
In 2015, Australia will mark the centenary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at what came to be known as Anzac Cove (Gaba Tepe). For Australia, this event has been a significant marker of nationhood, and the legacy of Anzac plays an important role in Australian cultural and political life. The experience of the First World War also had a lasting impact on language.
We can trace the language of Australians during the war years through a variety of sources, including letters, diaries, trench publications, and newspapers. These sources attest to the impact the war had on both British English and Australian English. Australian newspapers took note of the emerging lexicon of war, printing glossaries and articles that explained the military terminology that readers might encounter in the lengthy descriptions of battles and actions being reported. Words like emplacement, grenade, mortar, and redoubt were new or unfamiliar to the average Australian reader, and explanations were necessary. As the OED’s ‘100 words that define the First World War’ shows, the war generated a language of modern warfare that forever changed the lexicon.
It was also evident as the war progressed that a lot of slang was being generated. Australian soldiers used a variety of terms to describe aspects of army life: for example, army biscuits were variously forty-niners, Anzac wafers, or concrete macaroons, and jam or treacle was referred to as flybog. Soldiers were also introduced to a range of British army slang terms, which they quickly adopted into their vocabulary: for example, rooty for bread, iron rations for emergency rations, short arm parade for a venereal disease inspection, and gravel-crushing for route marching – this last being one of many terms reflecting the tedious life of the infantryman. Many terms for information or rumours were generated as well, reflecting a general concern about a lack of information about the war or likely activities: these included terms such as dinkum oil, good oil, and furphy, all of which remained popular in Australian English after the war.
The experience of the battlefield also produced a range of terms. There was a particular variety of terms for weapons, shells, and guns: Black Maria, whizz-bang, Jack Johnson, woolly bear, and Beachy Bill are just a few of them. Death and the fear of death generated its own vocabulary. To die was to be put into cold storage, to go west, or chuck a seven. While there were some words particular to the Australians (for example, possie for position, king-hit for a significant wound, and stoush for a fight), but the fact that much of the vocabulary of the war was shared by the Anglophone armies attests to their common experiences.
Australian soldiers liked to believe in their own unique creativity when it came to language. Soldiers’ publications during the war served to promote a particular image of the Australian soldier as brave, fearless, with a disregard for authority, and ready to crack a joke whatever the circumstances. While this didn’t always match reality, it became part of an emerging ‘Anzac legend’. Language played a role in this: Australian soldiers were inveterate users of slang who spoke a language few outsiders could comprehend, and they often used this to poke fun at others. One humorous item published in a Western Australian newspaper described an Australian soldier meeting King George V, and responding to his questions with colloquialisms such as bonzer and ribuck. It ended with the King commenting: ‘I’m no snide mug at languages … but I’d give a pot of dinkum dough if I could speak Australian.’ (Perth Daily News, 28 January 1919, p. 8)
During the war years, a language of commemoration also began to emerge, which developed more fully after the war. The first Anzac Day (initially also known as Gallipoli Day), was held in 1916, marking the anniversary of the landing at Anzac Cove. Subsequent Anzac Days would incorporate features such as the Anzac service (or Anzac Day service), Dawn service, and the Anzac Day march. Anzac Day has become a day of central importance in Australia.
The First World War had a lasting effect on the English lexicon. It also had a lasting effect on Australian English, and more importantly perhaps, language became one of the vehicles by which an emerging Australian national identity with the Anzac legend at its core began to take shape. This has been a contentious aspect of Australian public culture and discussions about identity, but it is undoubtedly true that the centenary of the Anzac landing will once again emphasise the significance the war has had for Australia.
Today is Armistice Day, which commemorates the ceasefire between the Allies and Germany on the Western Front during the First World War. Though battle continued on other fronts after the armistice was signed “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, we remember 11 November as the official end of “the war to end all wars.”
In honor of the Great War, the Oxford Bibliographies team has created this interactive map, a visual bibliography of critical moments, battles, people, technology, and other elements that defined the spirit of the times across continents. Explore the trenches, navigate the front-lines, and track troop movements while gaining scholarly insights into this crucial period, from the outbreak of the War to its conclusion and lasting effects.
Note: This map may not be a completely accurate geographical portrayal, but it is intended to depict historical facts pertaining to the “Great War” and the countries and regions involved.
Featured image credit: Battle of Broodseynde [sic] Ridge. Troops moving up at eventide. Men of a Yorkshire regiment on the march. Ernest Brooks. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
One hundred years ago, in September 1914, Australia began its first ever joint military operation. The occupation of German New Guinea, taking place more than seven months before the Anzac landings, will always be overshadowed by the larger and more violent event at Gallipoli, but in its own regional context it was at least equally significant. Initiated in response to a British request, the operation sought to achieve a number of important outcomes in support of the Empire’s war effort, including the acquisition of German colonial resources, the disruption of Germany’s Pacific communications and the denial of an important coaling base to the German Navy’s East Asian Cruiser Squadron.
The force assembled for the occupation, known officially as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), numbered around 1500 troops, and their rapid deployment in the armed transport Berrima stands as a notable achievement for a people who had been at war for just over a month. Among the many newly enlisted military men were several companies of experienced naval reservists and protection for the whole came from a large Australian naval flotilla that included a battlecruiser, three cruisers, three destroyers, two submarines, and a gunboat. These warships would ensure that the German East Asian Squadron did not interfere. Auxiliary vessels were also required to provide fuel and stores and, since German resistance seemed likely, among them was the well-appointed hospital ship Grantala, with an embarked medical staff of more than 50, including a matron and six nurses. Although largely unrecognised at the time, these women became the Australian Navy’s first female entrants.
The operation’s initial objective was the wireless station at Bitapaka near the German colonial capital at Rabaul, and the first landing by a company of naval reservists took place at dawn on 11 September at the small stone jetty at Kabakaul. Ashore, the enemy numbered some 300 German and native troops. They had prepared several well-defended trenches along the main road leading from Kabakaul, but by bold action and bluff the Australian naval men outflanked and overwhelmed the opposition and completed the destruction of the wireless station. For his bravery during the action, naval Lieutenant Thomas Bond was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the first Australian serviceman to be decorated in World War I.
AN&MEF casualties were remarkably light, but included six killed and four wounded, again the first to be suffered by Australian forces during the war. Enemy casualties amounted to at least 31 killed, 11 wounded and 75 taken prisoner. Threatened by the big guns of the fleet and unable to contemplate further resistance, the local German Governor capitulated soon afterwards, and then in a series of bloodless affairs the Australians proceeded to occupy the remainder of German New Guinea.
In all, it was a remarkably successful expedition, expanding Australian influence at a critical time and highlighting what the young nation could achieve on its own account. But there remained one further tragedy to be suffered. On 14 September, the Australian submarine AE1 failed to return from a routine patrol outside Rabaul. A succession of searches revealed no trace either of the submarine or its crew, and it seems likely that she sank during a test dive, possibly following a marine accident. The loss, the new Navy’s first, brought condolences from around the Empire and has continued to be remembered by successive generations of naval men and women. This month, a new search has begun using a modern Australian minehunter, HMAS Yarra. We could do no better than wish her crew every success in their attempt to find the wreck.
Headline image credit: The light cruiser HMAS Sydney steams towards Rabaul. The Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF), which included HMAS Sydney, HMAS Australia, HMAS Encounter, HMAS Warrego, HMAS Yarra and HMAS Parramatta, seized control of German New Guinea on 11 September 1914. Public domain via Australian War Memorial.
This article originally appeared on the Oxford Australia blog.
Where did the first Chinatown originate, and how many exist across the country? Where do the majority of the country’s immigrant populations currently reside? Andrew Beveridge, Co-Founder and CEO of census data mapping program Social Explorer, discusses the effects of the First World War on American nativity demographics. Analyzing native and foreign-born populations both during and after the War, particularly around the time of the 1917 Immigration Act, Beveridge shows how you can follow immigration trends over time up to the present day.
Featured image credit: Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000, Artist (NARA record: 1981548) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is the newest book from a longtime favorite of mine, John Hendrix, and the second that Hendrix illustrated and authored himself. Commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, Herndrix turns his thoughtful eye to a humane moment in the midst of an inhumane period of history, telling the story of the incredible Christmas Truce between
The centenary of the capture of Basra offers an opportunity to reflect on the nature and impact of the first Western military intervention in Iraq, nine decades before the city once again became the focal point of British activity in the country between 2003 and 2009. The small-scale operation envisaged by British political and military planners in October 1914 morphed into one of the most protracted military campaigns outside of the European theatre of the Great War. It combined gross initial mismanagement and eventual humiliation with landmark military successes such as the occupation of Baghdad in March 1917 and the first flawed attempt at imposing an external state-building agenda in Iraq. More than 40,000 British and Indian soldiers lost their lives and were commemorated on a memorial displayed prominently near Basra until 1997, when it was moved by order of Saddam Hussein to an isolated desert outpost.
On the evening of 21 November 1914, two gunboats advanced toward Basra with detachments of Indian forces belonging to the 104th Wellesley Rifles and the 117th Mahrattas of 16th Brigade of the Indian Army’s 6th Division. Sent ashore to restore order following the outbreak of looting in the town, the capture of Basra was among the first major British successes in the Great War then entering its fourth month. Two days later, the British flag was raised over the town and a headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed proudly ‘Another Red Patch on the Map.’ Much to the delight of British officers with the Indian force, the English Club was found undisturbed by the looting that took place after the Ottoman withdrawal, and well-stocked with lager beer.
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, reports had begun to reach British officials in London that the Ottoman Army had started to mobilise in Baghdad and was seizing British property in the city. In fact, the Ottoman Army had started a general mobilisation on 3 August, and three days later the authorities in Baghdad proclaimed martial law, even though the Ottomans did not formally declare war until late-October. By mid-September, Ottoman troops in Basra were preparing defensive positions along the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and limited (though unsuccessful) attempts had been made to enlist the major tribal groupings around Baghdad.
The news from Mesopotamia alarmed Sir Edmund Barrow, the Military Secretary at the India Office in London. His office, along with the Government of India, was responsible for the British-protected sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the Trucial States (today the United Arab Emirates) in the Persian Gulf. Barrow feared the Ottomans’ actions might damage British prestige in the region and sway the loyalty of local tribal sheikhs, upon whose collaboration rested British commercial, political and strategic supremacy in the Gulf. Accordingly, he suggested sending a military force to the Shatt al-Arab at the northern head of the Gulf to repair local prestige and reassure any wavering local allies of British support. Furthermore, it would demonstrate British military might to regional observers, protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s installations and pipeline at Abadan on the eastern (Persian) shore of the Gulf, and cover the landing of any reinforcements which might subsequently be required. At this stage, and in striking contrast to the importance that Mesopotamia’s oil potential assumed by 1918, British interests were primarily motivated by issues of prestige, rather than the strategic control of oil-producing areas.
The 16th Indian Brigade sailed from Bombay on 16 October 1914 in a convoy headed to Egypt and then on to France to reinforce Indian troops being sent to the Western Front. However, the Brigade was ordered to detach itself from the convoy and make its way to Bahrain, where it arrived on 23 October. Once there, it encountered unexpectedly stiff local unease at its presence, which forced the 5000 men and 1200 animals to remain on their cramped troopships in hot and oppressive conditions. With the declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire imminent, 16th Brigade sailed northward to the Shatt al-Arab at the head of the Persian Gulf and prepared for an attack on the Faw Peninsula south-east of Basra. At 6am on the morning of 6 November 1914, HMS Odin fired the first shots of the campaign as it bombarded the local Ottoman fort and landed 600 men on the peninsula. The Brigade proceeded to Abadan (in Persian territory) on 9 November, where it disembarked with some difficulty, and, two days later, beat off an Ottoman counter-attack to confirm their foothold.
The British declaration of war with the Ottoman Empire on 5 November 1914 led the British military authorities in India to rapidly dispatch a second infantry brigade (the 18th) to reinforce 16th Brigade. It arrived at Abadan on 14 November. Two days later, the Cabinet in London authorised the capture of Basra on the condition that the Arab political situation and general military conditions were favourable. A sharp engagement took place at Salih on 17 November in a downpour that turned the desert ‘into a veritable sea of mud’ and claimed nearly 500 British and Indian and over 1000 Ottoman casualties. This unexpectedly costly success paved the way for the final advance to Basra, completing the initial objective of what became known as Indian Expeditionary Force D. Even at this formative stage, the seeds of local resistance were being sown as a fatwa issued by the Ottoman Sultan calling for jihad against the British occupiers was read out in every Sunni mosque in Mesopotamia. The Shiite clergy of Najaf were among the first to declare their support in response to an urgent appeal from their counterparts in Basra.
The successful capture of Basra did not lead to a halt in military operations in Mesopotamia. Instead, and largely for reasons of prestige, the campaign expanded rapidly throughout 1915. This left Indian Expeditionary Force D dangerously over-exposed across mutually unsupportable positions and dependent on a supply and transport network that creaked at the seams before breaking down completely early in 1916. Subsequent military operations in Mesopotamia until November 1918 spawned a potent array of political and economic grievances that culminated in the mass uprising against British rule known as the al-Thawra al-‘Iraqiya al-Kubra (the Great Iraqi Revolution) in 1920. A century later, with one-third of Iraq under the control of an Islamic State bent on redrawing the map of the modern Middle East that emerged from the war, the legacy of decisions made during and immediately after the First World War continue to cast their long shadow over the region.
The light in the Orkneys is so clear, so bright, so lucid, it feels like you are on top of the world looking though thin clouds into heaven.
It doesn’t even feel part of the UK: when you sail off the edge of Scotland by the Scrabster to Stromness ferry, you feel you are departing the real world to land in a magical realm.
Nowhere else on earth can you go to a place and see eight thousand years of continuous history in such a tiny space.
Skara Brae is what remains of a neolithic village, older than Stonehenge and the pyramids, kept secret underground until uncovered by a severe storm in 1850. You can walk in and sit down, look around at the stone walls, stone beds, stone cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Recognizably human people lived here, seeing this same landscape and coast, feeling the same wind on their faces that you do, their eyes resting on the doors, hearths and toilets (one in each dwelling).
This is ‘stone age’ but talking about such ages is a misnomer in the Orkneys where they had no appreciable bronze age nor iron age so proceeded from the non-use of one metal to the non-use of another in what is now the best preserved neolithic site in Europe.
The Orkneys have been so fascinating for so long that even the vandalism needs to be preserved. In Maeshowe burial mound you can see where Viking tourists who came to the monument, already ancient by their time, wrote graffiti about their girlfriends on the walls. They wrote in Norse runes.
The Orkney islands were the headquarters of the Viking invasion fleets, and to this day the Orkneys are the only place in the world besides Norway where the Norwegian national day is celebrated.
The islands are filled with Tolkeinesque place names like the Ring of Brodgar, the Brough of Birsay, the Standing Stones of Stenness. Sagas were born here, like that of the peaceable 12th century Earl of Orkney, treacherously assassinated and now known as St Magnus, after whom the cathedral is named.
Sagas were created here in living memory. This is where the British home fleet was at anchor and the German fleet still lies. The battle fleet of the German Imperial Navy transferred in its entirety to Scapa Flow in 1919 to await a decision on its future. The German sailors could not bring themselves to give up their ships; they opened the seacocks and scuttled them all. At low tide you can still see the rusting hulks of Wilhelmine ambitions to dominate Europe.
If the Orkneys sound bleak and rocky, that would be the wrong impression to leave. They have rich and fertile farming land with green plains rolling on under a pearl sky. People tell folk tales around the peat fires, drinking ginger-flavoured whiskey; an orange cat pads around the grain heaps in the Highland Park distillery, and the islands shimmer under the ‘simmer dim’ of nightless summer days. I should be there now.
In the first autumn of World War I, a German infantryman from the 25th Reserve Division sent this pithy greeting to his children in Schwarzenberg, Saxony.
11 November 1914
My dear little children!
How are you doing? Listen to your mother and grandmother and mind your manners.
Heartfelt greetings to all of you!
Your loving Papa
He scrawled the message in looping script on the back of a Feldpostkarte, or field postcard, one that had been designed for the Bahlsen cookie company by the German artist and illustrator Änne Koken. On the front side of the postcard, four smiling German soldiers share a box of Leibniz butter cookies as they stand on a grassy, sun-stippled outpost. The warm yellow pigment of the rectangular sweets seems to emanate from the opened care package, flushing the cheeks of the assembled soldiers with a rosy tint.
German citizens posted an average of nearly 10 million pieces of mail to the front during each day of World War I, and German service members sent over 6 million pieces in return; postcards comprised well over half of these items of correspondence. For active duty soldiers, postage was free of charge. Postcards thus formed a central and a portable component of wartime visual culture, a network of images in which patriotic, sentimental, and nationalistic postcards formed the dominant narrative — with key moments of resistance dispatched from artists and amateurs serving at the front.
The first postcards were permitted by the Austrian postal service in 1869 and in Germany one year later. (The Post Office Act of 1870 allowed for the first postcards to be sold in Great Britain; the United States followed suit in 1873.) Over the next four decades, Germany emerged as a leader in the design and printing of colorful picture postcards, which ranged from picturesque landscapes to tinted photographs of famous monuments and landmarks. Many of the earliest propaganda postcards, at the turn of the twentieth century, reproduced cartoons and caricatures from popular German humor magazines such as Simplicissimus, a politically progressive journal that moved toward an increasingly reactionary position during and after World War I. Indeed, the majority of postcards produced and exchanged between 1914 and 1918 adopted a sentimental style that matched the so-called “hurrah kitsch” of German official propaganda.
Beginning in 1914, the German artist and Karlsruhe Academy professor Walter Georgi produced 24 patriotic Feldpostkarten for the Bahlsen cookie company in Hannover. In a postcard titled Engineers Building a Bridge (1915), a pair of strong-armed sappers set to work on a wooden trestle while a packet of Leibniz butter cookies dangle conspicuously alongside their work boots.
These engineering troops prepared the German military for the more static form of combat that followed the “Race to the Sea” in the fall of 1914; they dug and fortified trenches and bunkers, built bridges, and developed and tested new weapons — from mines and hand grenades to flamethrowers and, eventually, poison gas.
Georgi’s postcard designs for the Bahlsen company deploy the elegant color lithography he had practiced as a frequent contributor to the Munich Art Nouveau journal Jugend (see Die Scholle).In another Bahlsen postcard titled “Hold Out in the Roaring Storm” (1914), Georgi depicted a group of soldiers wearing the distinctive spiked helmets of the Prussian Army. Their leader calls out to his comrades with an open mouth, a rifle slung over his shoulder, and a square package of Leibniz Keks looped through his pinkie finger. In a curious touch that is typical of First World War German patriotic postcards, both the long-barreled rifles and the soldier’s helmets are festooned with puffy pink and carmine flowers.
These lavishly illustrated field postcards, designed by artists and produced for private industry, could be purchased throughout Germany and mailed, traded, or collected in albums to express solidarity with loved ones in active duty. The German government also issued non-pictorial Feldpostkarten to its soldiers as an alternate and officially sanctioned means of communication. For artists serving at the front, these 4” x 6” blank cards provided a cheap and ready testing ground at a time when sketchbooks and other materials were in short supply. The German painter Otto Schubert dispatched scores of elegant watercolor sketches from sites along the Western Front; Otto Dix, likewise, sent hundreds of illustrated field postcards to Helene Jakob, the Dresden telephone operator he referred to as his “like-minded companion,” between June 1915 and September 1918. These sketches (see Rüdiger, Ulrike, ed. Grüsse aus dem Krieg: die Feldpostkarten der Otto-Dix-Sammlung in der Kunstgalerie Gera, Kunstgalerie Gera 1991) convey details both minute and panoramic, from the crowded trenches to the ruined fields and landmarks of France and Belgium. Often, their flip sides contain short greetings or cryptic lines of poetry written in both German and Esperanto.
Dix enlisted for service in 1914 and saw front line action during the Battle of the Somme, in August 1916, one of the largest and costliest offensives of World War I that spanned nearly five months and resulted in casualties numbering more than one million. By September of 1918, the artist had been promoted to staff sergeant and was recovering from injuries at a field hospital near the Western Front. He sent one of his final postcard greetings to Helene Jakob on the reverse side of a self-portrait photograph, in which he stands with visibly bandaged legs and one hand resting on his hip. Dix begins the greeting in Esperanto, but quickly shifts to German to report on his condition: “I’ve been released from the hospital but remain here until the 28th on a course of duty. I’m sending you a photograph, though not an especially good one. Heartfelt greetings, your Dix.” Just two months later, the First World War ended in German defeat.
The horror of the First World War produced an extraordinary amount of poetry, both during the conflict and in reflection afterwards. Professor Tim Kendall’s anthology, Poetry of the First World War, brings together work by many of the well-known poets of the time, along with lesser-known writing by civilian and women poets and music hall and trench songs.
This is a poem from that anthology, ‘Song of Amiens’ by T. P. Cameron Wilson. Wilson had been a teacher until war broke out, when he enlisted. He served with the Sherwood Foresters, and was killed during the great German assault of March 1918.
Song of Amiens
Lord! How we laughed in Amiens!
For here were lights and good French drink,
And Marie smiled at everyone,
And Madeleine’s new blouse was pink,
And Petite Jeanne (who always runs)
Served us so charmingly, I think
That we forgot the unsleeping guns.
Lord! How we laughed in Amiens!
Till through the talk there flashed the name
Of some great man we left behind.
And then a sudden silence came,
And even Petite Jeanne (who runs)
Stood still to hear, with eyes aflame,
The distant mutter of the guns.
Ah! How we laughed in Amiens!
For there were useless things to buy,
Simply because Irène, who served,
Had happy laughter in her eye;
And Yvonne, bringing sticky buns,
Cared nothing that the eastern sky
Was lit with flashes from the guns.
And still we laughed in Amiens,
As dead men laughed a week ago.
What cared we if in Delville Wood
The splintered trees saw hell below?
We cared . . . We cared . . . But laughter runs
The cleanest stream a man may know
To rinse him from the taint of guns.
- T. P. Cameron Wilson (1888-1918)
Featured image: 8th August, 1918 by Will Longstaff, Australian official war artist. Depicts a scene during the Battle of Amiens. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Since the outbreak of the First World War just over one hundred years ago, the debate concerning the conflict’s causes has been shaped by political preoccupations as well as historical research. Wartime mobilization of societies required governments to explain the justice of their cause, the “war guilt” clause of the treaty of Versailles became a focal point of German revisionist foreign policy in the 1920s, and the Fischer debate in West Germany in the 1960s took place against a backdrop of the Cold War and the efforts of German society to come to terms with the Nazi past. More recently critics of Sir Edward Grey’s foreign policy, such as Niall Ferguson and John Charmley, are writing in the context of intense debates about Britain’s relationship with Europe, while accounts that emphasise the strength of the great power peace before 1914 are informed in part by contemporary discussions of globalization and the improbability of a war between the world’s leading powers today – the conflict in the Ukraine notwithstanding.
The persistent political backdrop to debates about the origins of the war is evident in the reception of Christopher Clark’s best-selling work, The Sleepwalkers, particularly its resonance within Germany. Clark’s references to the Euro-crisis, 9/11, and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, dotted throughout the book, nod to the contemporary relevance of the collapse of the international system in 1914.
While Clark seeks to eschew debates about war guilt or responsibility, preferring to concentrate on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’, his conclusion contends that leaders in the capitals of the five Great Powers and in Belgrade bear somewhat equal responsibility for the war. This thesis has attracted considerable attention in Germany, where the last major public reckoning over the origins of the war took place in the 1960s, when Fritz Fischer’s thesis that German leaders planned for war from December 1912 and therefore bore the largest responsibility for its outbreak was the subject of intense and often vindictive debate. Fischer carried the day in the 1960s, but now Clark’s argument, comparative in a way that Fischer did not claim to be, has overturned what appeared to be a publicly accepted orthodoxy.
The centenary debate has also coincided with a particular moment in German political and cultural debate. The post-unification economic slowdown has now given way to a booming economy, while much of the rest of Europe is mired in austerity. In tandem with economic prosperity, German elites are displaying growing political confidence as Europe’s dominant state.
In this context Clark’s thesis about shared responsibility for the war has been read in two ways. One group, whose most notable advocates include Thomas Weber (Aberdeen/Harvard) and Dominik Geppert (Bonn), argue that the ongoing belief in German ‘war guilt’ is an historic fiction that damages both German and European politics. It has contributed to the unwillingness of successive German governments to take on greater leadership within Europe. The marginalization of the German national interest after 1945, they claim, is partly the product of a misinformed reading of history that holds the pursuit of the German national interest as responsible for two catastrophic global conflicts. This has resulted in a damaging approach to European politics, which holds that the national is inherently opposed to the European interest. By neglecting the national interest German leaders are creating instability within Europe and alienating many German citizens from participating in a European project that must take account of national diversity. Hence they welcome Clark’s book and the enormous public interest it has aroused in Germany.
However Clark’s thesis has not met with universal approval. Leading critics include Gerd Krumeich and John Röhl, both representatives of a generation of historians who came to the fore during and soon after the Fischer debate. They criticize Clark for downplaying the responsibility of German political and military leaders for the war, both by stressing the comparatively restrained character of German foreign policy up to the July crisis and by his criticisms of the aggressive nature of Russian, French, and British foreign policy before 1914. Not only do they take issue with Clark’s arguments, they also express concern that the ‘relativizing’ of German responsibility for the outbreak of the war will lead to a recrudescence of a more assertive German nationalism, undoing the successful integration of the Federal Republic into a community of democratic, European nations. From their perspective, a more assertive German nationalism, freed from the historic burden of war guilt, constitutes a potential danger.
The debate blends divergent generational perspectives on German national identity and European politics, as well as different interpretations of the sources and methodological approaches to studying the origins of the war. For the record, this author finds Clark’s account persuasive. On balance there is a greater risk in Germany not playing a leading role in European politics than there is of a re-assertion of a muscular German national interest and identity. Yet both groups may overestimate the significance of the “war guilt” in shaping perspectives in German and European politics. While the centenary has created a privileged space for the first world war in public discussion, the politics of history within Germany remain firmly fixed on the crimes of the Third Reich. When Europeans today think of Germany’s historical burden, they think primarily of the Nazi past. After all, disaffected protesters in countries hit by austerity after 2008 compared current German policies to those of the Third Reich, not the Kaiserreich. Grotesque and unfounded as the comparison was, it was striking that protesters did not think about Wilhelm II. While historians may revise their views of German responsibility for the First World War, no serious historian disputes the primacy of the Hitler’s regime in starting a genocidal war in Europe in 1939.
As the first year of the World War I centenary continues, here is a selection of classic literature inspired by the conflict. Some of it was written in the years after the war, while some of it was completed as the conflict was in progress. What they all have in common, though, is an unflinchingly expression of the horrors of the First World War for those in the thick of the battles, and those left behind at home.
The First World War brought forth an extraordinary amount of poetic talent. Their poems have come to express the feelings of a nation about the horrors of war. Some of these poets are widely read and studied to this day, such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Ivor Gurney. However, others are less widely read, and this anthology incorporates that writing with work by civilian and woman poets, along with music hall and trench songs.
This, Woolf’s fourth novel, prominently features Septimus Warren Smith, a young man deeply damaged by his time in the First World War. Shellshock causes him to hallucinate – he thinks he hears birds in a park chattering in Greek, for instance – and the psychological toll wrought by war drives him to a profound hatred of himself and the whole human race.
Ford Madox Ford was in the process of writing The Good Soldier when the First World War broke out in 1914. Inevitably this influenced his work, and this novel brilliantly portrays the destruction of a civilized elite as it anticipates the cataclysm of war. It also invokes contemporary concerns about sexuality, psychoanalysis, and the New Woman.
In Greenmantle – published during the First World War, in 1916 – Richard Hannay travels across Europe as it is being torn apart by war. He is in search of a German plot and an Islamic Messiah, and is in the process joined by three more of Buchan’s heroes: old Boer Scout Peter Pienaar; John S. Blenkiron, an American determined to fight the Kaiser; and Sandy Arbuthnot, Greenmantle himself, who was modelled on Lawrence of Arabia. In this rip-roaring tale Buchan shows his mastery of the thriller and of the Stevensonian romance, and also his enormous knowledge of international politics before and during World War I.
This is Virginia Woolf’s third novel, and was published in 1922. It is an experimental portrait of Jacob Flanders, a young man who is both representative and victim of the social values which led Edwardian society into the First World War. Even his very name indicates his position as the archetypal victim of the war: Flanders is an area of Belgium where many British soldiers were killed and injured during the First World War. Jacob’s Room is an experimental novel, cutting back and forth in time, and never quite allowing the reader full sight of its subject. Rather, Jacob’s story is told through the words and memories of the women in his life.
Rudyard Kipling may be most commonly remembered for the Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, but he also wrote extensively about war. His only son, John, was unfortunately killed in action in 1915, and Kipling took many years to accept what had happened. Until his death in 1936, he continued searching for his son’s final resting place but even today John has no known grave. Of the poems Kipling wrote in the aftermath of the First World War, perhaps the best known is his tribute to The Irish Guards (1918), the regiment with which his son was serving at the time of his death.