“Vestiges of the Great War’s Bloody End” and “Les Americains”

The New York Times has been publishing an occasional series in its Travel section on World War I sites in France, written mostly by Richard Rubin, the author of Last of the Doughboys, a remarkable oral history (and remarkably recent) of the last surviving American soldiers who had seen action in the war.

The latest piece–a huge two-page spread in today’s Travel section–describes the remains, often stunningly preserved, of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the “deadliest battle in American history,” with more than 26,000 Americans killed in just 47 days.


By the time it abruptly ended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, between 15 million and 20 million men had perished in the First World War. That statistic can be difficult to grasp, much less believe; but hike through a couple of forests in the hills of Lorraine, and you begin to see how it happened.”  

Hike around these woods, and you quickly come to understand that this was a war unlike any other when it came to murderous ingenuity, and that the Germans had a distinctive technological edge. They also had better weapons, better-trained soldiers, better generals, better spies, better maps, better barbed wire, better barbed wire cutters. They always seemed to hold the better ground; their strategy was better. You can’t help but wonder: How did they lose?­  

Rubin has been here often, and describes, wonderfully, his encounters with the locals.  When he asks them that question:  “How did the Germans lose?”

the answer is always– always– the same:  Les Americains. 

“Silent Night” and the Christmas Truce of 1914

So much has been written–and debunked– about the “Christmas Truce” of December 1914 on the Western Front that it’s hard to separate truth from sentiment, fact from art.  There have been movies and TV shows and novels and theatre pieces– all drawn to the undeniably powerful idea that, for one brief moment, as the world was plunging into a devastating catastrophe, sanity and human understanding might have prevailed.

trucecuttingI’ve just caught up–three years late–with the extraordinary “Silent Night,” an opera  by American composer Kevin Puts, produced in 2011 by the Minnesota Opera.  It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for composition in 2012, and has been produced by several other opera companies since then– probably more than any recent new operatic work, most of which fade away after the first production.

But “Silent Night” not only has a great, often-told story going for it– it’s also a truly powerful, moving theatrical and musical experience.

Here’s an extended clip from a production in Philadelphia.  The whole production– broadcast on PBS’s “Great Performances,” is worth seeking out.

“The Wheat Field” near Chateau-Thierry: Where Americans turned the tide

DSCN0273I was in France in later August, and visited the Musee nationale de la premiere guerre mondiale in Meaux, in the Marne Valley, site of two great battles of World War I–the first in 1914, the second nearly four years later, in summer 1918, after the Americans had entered the war.   I was eager to make a visit–a pilgrimage–to Chateau-Thierry, site of several brutal engagements between Allied forces, including a fresh contingent of U.S. Marines, and German forces in the summer of 1918.

“Belleau Wood” is a legendary place in U.S. Marine history– a dense forest (it’s still there) outside Chateau-Thierry that, in early June 1918, was full of entrenched German soldiers (the trenches are still there, too) crouched behind machine guns.   The Fifth Marine Regiment attacked the woods in waves, pouring across an open wheat field, dotted with poppies.   Oral historian Richard Rubin took the same trip I did a few weeks ago, and wrote about it for the Times:

“On the morning of June 6, 1918, they went on the attack, crossing an open wheat field into withering German machine gun fire. ‘They started us in waves toward the Belleau Woods,’ Private Eugene Lee of the Fifth Marine Regiment — the battle’s last living survivor — told me 85 years later. (Mr. Lee died in 2004 at the age of 105.) ‘In four waves … you’d go so far, and you’d keep firing along there into the woods until the next wave come along … and then you’d lie down, and the next wave would come in back of them, jump each one until they got to the edge of the woods. And then they got in the woods, fighting.'” 

Above is a photo of the American Cemetery in Oise-Aisne, very near Belleau Wood, where 2,288 American soldiers are buried.  These crosses mark the graves only of soldiers whose remains could be identified.  Below is a photo from inside the chapel at the cemetery, its walls covered with names of soldiers:  “The names recorded on these walls are those of American soldiers who fought in this region and who sleep in unknown graves.”

Oisne-Aisne American Cemetery chapel interior

Brian Horrigan, Curator, The Over Here Project

The First World War’s “Big Data”

A little-examined byproduct of World War I is the rise of “big data,” as we might call it today.  The government became increasingly invested in making people, both soldiers and civilians, “legible” (in the words of political scientist James C. Scott), creating an impetus to collect massive amounts of data.

For example, when millions of men enlisted in the military, all were subjected to a rigorous physical examination. Military officials found about one in three recruits to be “defective” and unfit for service.  All of this data was compiled into a report, with the rather cumbersome title: Defects Found in Drafted Men: Statistical Information Compiled from the Draft Records Showing the Physical Condition of the Men Registered and Examined in Pursuance of the Requirements of the Selective Service Act. Here’s a sample chart from this report:

Screen shot 2014-08-06 at 11.04.24 AM

Source: Google Books

Throughout the war, the Medical Department of the US Army also kept scrupulous records on everything from wartime ailments to post-war disability and rehabilitation. They compiled a massive report which is publicly available here.

Big data was also amassed in the surveillance of potentially “subversive” groups and individuals. The head of the Military Information Division, Ralph Van Deman, boasted that by the war’s end his office had collected “many hundreds of thousands of cards” on such suspects.  Citizens were also made “legible” at the state level; Minnesota’s Commission of Public Safety required all “aliens” residing in the state to register for special identification papers:

Alien reg card photoAlien reg card info

Source: Minnesota Historical Society

A national World War I memorial — and the controversy


The CBS Evening News carried a story last night on World War I memorials in the United States, repeating the oft-heard characterization of the War as “forgotten.”One of the settings for the story was this little-known monument in Washington, D.C.– not a national memorial (there is none in the District), but rather a monument to the fallen soldiers from the District itself.  There is currently a drive to create a national memorial in D.C.– not something new, but a “re-purposing” and re-design of the Pershing Park at 14th and Pennsylvania Ave. there.  This is not, however, a universally embraced idea, at least not by the group that has formed to create a distinct National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

“The Spirit of the American Doughboy”: E.M. Viquesney and the mass-produced war memorial

In the 1920s, World War I memorials were being built throughout America. One sculptor in particular is responsible for a great many: Ernest Moore “Dick” Viquesney, of Spencer, Indiana.  Viquesney sculpted his first memorial sculpture in 1920, which looked something like this: 

Viquesney called it “The Spirit of the American Doughboy,” and in 1921 it won an American Legion war memorial contest, the judges proclaiming it a “100% perfect” representation of America’s doughboys. This, and the fact that Viquesney could mass-produce the statues cheaply with pressed copper, led to a huge demand for the doughboys; in the subsequent decades, they popped up in parks, courthouse lawns, and cemeteries throughout the country.  Thousands more were manufactured as 12-inch miniatures, which were used as desk decorations, lamps, candlesticks, and more.

Today over 140 of Viquesney’s doughboy memorial statues remain scattered throughout the United States. Les Kopel and Earl G. Goldsmith, two Viquesney doughboy enthusiasts, have assembled an impressive website that provides detailed information about E.M. Viquesney and his work, and catalogues all of his doughboys throughout the country.  Visit their site here.

Source: All images and information from The E.M. Viquesney Doughboy Database (linked above)

WWI: The not-so-forgotten war, according to recent NYT piece

Craters dot the landscape along what once was the Western Front

World War I is often referred to as a “forgotten” war, especially here in the States.  But in the pastures and woods that run along the border of Belgium and France, the war’s memory is unavoidable, and sometimes even deadly.

Suzanne Daley’s recently penned piece in The New York Times describes how the war’s remains–artillery shells, land mines, war artifacts, bones–still affect daily life along what once was the Western Front: farmers avoid plowing certain patches of land fearing they will detonate a shell or mine (20-30% of which never blew up); construction projects are halted when mass graves are discovered; local collectors have set up small, independent museums full of war remains; very occasionally, people are killed by 100-year-old shells and mines, and the French and Belgian governments have special units devoted to finding and disposing of these dangerous explosives.

World War I still clings to us all in subtle ways, but in parts of Belgium and France it remains literally imbedded in the landscape.

Image source: The Daily Mail

The Seattle General Strike of 1919

When World War I ended, the US economy transitioned back to “business as usual,” and the expanded war industry was repurposed for peace-time.  Unfortunately this led to a recession, which pressurized an already volatile relationship between labor and the industrial elite. The Bolsheviks had shown the world that the idea of communism could foment revolution, and fear of labor unrest in the United States reached a fever-pitch in 1919 and 1920. This became known as the Red Scare.

This tense situation erupted on February 6th, 1919 with the Seattle General Strike.

35,000 shipyard workers walked off their jobs when they were refused a raise after a two-year wartime wage freeze.  The Central Labor Council then called for a sympathy walkout among all union members, raising the number of striking workers to around 60,000 and bringing Seattle to a standstill.


Striking workers leave the Seattle shipyards

Business and political elites feared revolution, and Seattle mayor Ole Hanson responded with armed police and threats of martial law. By the end of the week the unions conceded defeat and  declared that the strike was over. In the ensuing days, police continued to arrest “Reds”.

Although the Seattle General Strike was defeated, it set off a wave of labor unrest throughout the country; in 1919 alone, 20 percent of all American workers were on strike at some point.

For more information about this visit the Seattle General Strike Project, an online, curated database created by the University of Washington.  Images and information for this post come from their website.

The Media Responds to the WWI Centennial

As the centennial of the war begins, major media outlets have responded with numerous editorials and other features, marking the war as a pivotal event in world history and discussing its geopolitical, technological, and cultural legacies. Many of these pieces place the war and its legacies in direct conversation with the world of today.

In a June 26th New York Times editorial, journalist Steven Erlanger highlights the major technological developments stemming from the war, and the upheavals they brought to the world order. He also discusses the memory of the war in the US and abroad. In another Times piece, “A War to End All Innocence,” critic A. O. Scott examines the war’s literature and argues that the war produced intense cynicism and disillusionment.  Culture critic Edward Rothstein also weighs in on the centennial with a review of a World War I exhibition at the University of Texas, Austin, which tells the story of the war through the personal experiences of soldiers. Rothstein writes that WWI inaugurated a view among soldiers that war was pointless.

The Wall Street Journal has also published several pieces on World War I in recent weeks. On the anniversary of the Sarajevo assassination, they premiered an extensive interactive page on their website, “100 Years, 100 Legacies: The Lasting Impacts of World War I”.  Users can rate the significance of various WWI legacies, and the highest ranked include major political/economic shifts and war technologies. The Journal also ran an editorial by prominent WWI historian Margaret MacMillan: “World War I: The War That Changed Everything.” She discusses the profound change of the global geopolitical order wrought by the war and stresses how it laid the groundwork for both World War II and the Cold War. The WSJ also published several short essays about more specific legacies of the war, such as the effect of the war on the woman suffrage movement, the decline of the British Empire, and the end of the mass army.

Other significant media outlets have also published centenary retrospectives of World War I. Earlier this year, The Economist published “100 Years after 1914: Still in the Grip of the Great War,” which discusses the historiography of the war and its major debates.  In the Boston Globe, art critic Mark Feeney discusses the major changes in photography, film, and painting that were wrought by the war in his recent piece “World War I and visual culture”. Feeney argues that artists’ inability to represent the war led to new forms of abstract art, such as Dadaism. In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen grapples with the meaning of the war in his editorial “The enigmatic war.” Cohen wonders how meaning can be made out of a war that lacks a clear “good vs. evil” narrative, and applies this analysis to current conflicts in the Middle East. Finally, Public Radio International has begun a series that examines conflicts in the Balkans, Nigeria, Israel/Palestine, Iraq, and Northern Ireland and argues that World War I contains important lessons for these conflicts and for building a lasting peace.

Although these pieces approach the war from different angles, they agree that to understand the world today one must commemorate and study the Great War and its legacies.

100 YEARS AGO TODAY: The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the spark that ignited the First World War

On June 28, 2014, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo.  Princip and his co-conspirators were hoping that the assassination would lead to the liberation of Austria-Hungary’s Slavic provinces.  Instead, their actions triggered the greatest human catastrophe the world had ever seen.


Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg


Gavrilo Princip

The Archduke and his wife arrived in Sarajevo the morning of June 28.  As they drove through the city to get to a Town Hall reception, one of Gavrilo Princip’s colleague’s attempted to drop a bomb on their car.  The attempt failed, but the bomb blew up the car following Ferdinand’s motorcade, injuring several people.  Although shaken, the Archduke appeared and spoke at the reception.  After leaving, he decided to visit those who were injured by the failed bombing.  On the way, his driver took a wrong turn (perhaps the most fateful wrong turn in history) and they encountered Princip, who stepped out from a crowd and fired a pistol from a distance of 5 feet; the Archduke and the Duchess were shot, and they both died en route to the hospital. Princip was arrested immediately.


Gavrilo Princip is arrested after the assassination

In 1914 Europe was a volatile network of delicate alliances, and the assassination set off an avalanche of complex diplomatic maneuvers among the European powers, which to this day inspires fierce debate among historians.  In a nutshell: Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia in response to the assassination; Russia backs Serbia, its ally; soon Germany and the Ottoman Empire begin war-posturing on the side of Austria-Hungary, and France and Great Britain follow suit on the side of Russia. By Fall of 1914, Europe was engulfed in war. Eventually, the United States joins in 1917.


The two sides of the war, the Central and Allied Powers, mostly correspond to the network of pre-war alliances

Although the causes of the war extend far beyond Gavrilo Princip’s actions, the assassination one hundred years ago of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg set off a sequence of events that would remake the world.


Vladimir Dedijer, The Road to Sarajevo (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966)

Photo of the Archduke and Duchess: edwardianpromenade.com

Photo of Gavrilo Princip: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Princip’s arrest: BBC via the Imperial War Museum

Map of WW1 alliances: zonu.com