World War I

Dubrulle Reviews 1917

Back in November, in the introduction to a review of Midway, One Thing after Another claimed it it was breaking “new ground” because it usually did “not review movies.” And yet, here we are again, reviewing another movie. In this blog’s defense, all we can say is that we look for material wherever we can. It so turned out that last Friday night, Professor Hugh Dubrulle was invited by some friends to see 1917, and he accepted with alacrity, thinking he could leverage some entertainment and good times into another post. What follows are his thoughts on the film.

Truth be told, due to the many trailers I saw on social media, I’d anxiously awaited the release of 1917 for months. I must admit, though, that this feeling of anticipation was mingled with ambivalence. The trailers suggested that the movie was beautifully filmed and suspenseful. The premise, however, seemed a bit difficult to swallow (“Deliver this message to your brother’s battalion, or they will all walk into trap, and 1600 men will die.”) Moreover, the trailers had a Dunkirk quality to them (i.e. the nightmarish images, the ticking clock, etc.), and while I rather liked that film, I didn’t want to see the same thing set in World War I. Of course, I understood that trailers do not always accurately represent a movie, so, in that respect, I hoped that 1917 would be better than advertised.

To summarize, 1917 is an uneven film with many strengths and several flaws. Perhaps the biggest problem is that parts of the plot seems contrived. The movie takes place in northern France on April 6-7, 1917 toward the end of the German army’s retreat to the Hindenburg Line. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is told by his sergeant to choose somebody for an unspecified task. He taps his friend, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay). The two are taken to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who tells them to deliver orders to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that will call off the attack of the 2nd Devons (2nd battalion, Devonshire Regiment). The Devons, who have advanced deep into the area abandoned by the Germans, are about to attack a newly fortified enemy position which, unbeknownst to them, is much stronger than they think. How the Devons advanced alone and unsupported so far ahead of the main body of the British army is never explained. Why Colonel Mackenzie thinks he can launch an attack with only two measly battalions against any kind of position (without reconnaissance) also remains a mystery. In 1917, as it pursued the retreating Germans, the real British army, habituated to the trench warfare of the previous two-and-a-half years, was cautious to a fault, so this storyline seems difficult to believe. Since I don’t want to pick nits of this sort throughout the review or unveil spoilers, I’ll stop there, but the film is punctuated by a series of similarly unlikely events. Undoubtedly, war is characterized by absurdity, confusion, and chance occurrences, but these events sometimes make it difficult for the viewer to suspend disbelief.

One can partially defend the plot by pointing out that in many ways, this movie is not about World War I in the way that, say, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was. (Although Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, on which that film was based, was not exclusively about World War I; it was framed as a brutal bildungsroman). Rather, 1917 is a quest story set during the war. Think here about The Odyssey, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings. Blake and Schofield’s quest consists of a short but difficult and eventful journey to save Blake’s brother and the lives of the 2nd Devons. Quests are often allegorical, and in thinking about the unlikely plot turns, one must not lose sight of that fact.

A strength of the movie is the cinematography which is often effective without drawing attention to itself. Everybody and his uncle have made much ado about what appears to be one continuous take, something that forges an intimacy between the viewer and the characters. But aside from this technique, it’s obvious that Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, took great pains to convey powerful impressions of very different landscapes. As Blake and Schofield start on their quest, the audience witnesses the muck, the crowds, and claustrophobia of the trenches followed by the decay, desolation, and strangely awesome isolation of no man’s land. The vivid green fields beyond the battle-scarred landscape provide a sort of visual relief. Only when the story reaches the desolate village of Écoust-St.-Mein does the filming become a little too self-conscious by fabricating a rapidly dancing chiaroscuro through the use of flares at night. But still, a number of the scenes that Deakins creates are reminiscent of Dunkirk in that they effectively bring to mind nightmares or frustration dreams.

The acting is generally strong. Chapman and especially Mackay, who are compelled by the plot to carry the film, both deliver excellent performances. Mackay, in particular, makes an impression that is all the more powerful for its restraint. That power is especially on view in a scene where a truck Schofield is riding in gets stuck in the mud. He urges the other soldiers traveling with him—all strangers from another unit—to help him push it forward. The audience knows what he knows: time is wasting. His body language and the tone of his voice capture an earnestness and urgency that have reached the cusp of despair; his fellow soldiers respond to his pleas and having learned of his mission, look at him with a newfound respect. When compared to the scenery-chewing and overacting that characterize Midway (the other major war movie of this year), 1917 proves that less is oftentimes more.

That being said, the movie could have provided Chapman and Mackay with more opportunities to develop their characters. Towards the beginning of their quest, tension between Blake and Schofield suddenly breaks out into the open; after almost getting killed, the latter pointedly asks why he should risk his life on this journey to save the former’s brother. Schofield, who might as well have asked Providence the following, continues his questioning by demanding to know why Blake chose him for this task (to which Blake can only stammer that he did not know what the mission was at the time he picked Schofield). Schofield’s questions are important, existential, and universal. Why should we sacrifice ourselves for others? How are any of us chosen for our missions? These issues assume a substantial, if not sufficiently large, place in Saving Private Ryan. But in 1917, this flare-up between the two men is just that—a flare-up. We hear no more about this matter that so exercises Schofield in this scene and provides a window into the characters of both soldiers. Through his subsequent actions, we learn that Schofield has decisively answered his own question. And while his answer is beautiful, it is wrought by some strange events.

Indeed, the why and the how of this answer is what simultaneously gives the movie its dramatic force while undermining that force. It is painful to write in oblique terms about an issue of such significance to the film, but I cannot say more for fear of spoiling the movie. 1917 is a strong and striking work but not a perfect one. When all is said and done, elements of the plot (particularly the contrived parts) have difficulty sustaining the power of the film. A number of scenes in 1917 are moving, but the conclusion feels incomplete, and not just because the quest only half succeeds.

Using the World War I Christmas Truce to Sell Choccies

Sainsbury WWI Ad

Now that Thanksgiving is over, let us move immediately to Christmas.

It may seem unlikely, but Sainsbury’s, Britain’s third-largest supermarket chain, is using World War I as the scene for one of its latest TV commercials. In cooperation with the Royal British Legion, the biggest charitable organization providing assistance to veterans, Sainsbury’s has produced the following advertisement:

The commercial takes place during the famous Christmas truce of 1914, when troops along some sectors of the Western Front in Northern France stopped the shooting for a variety of reasons. In some cases, Britons and Germans (and to a lesser extent the French and Belgians) called a halt to fighting to recover bodies, send letters into occupied territory, fraternize, exchange souvenirs, or even (although this point is disputed) play soccer. Sainbury’s is obviously proud of this effort, and the supermarket has devoted a prominent part of its web site to the ad which is part of a campaign entitled, “Christmas is for Sharing.”

Predictably, reactions have been mixed. Since the ad was released on November 12, it has been watched over 13 million times on YouTube. Many viewers have expressed positive attitudes toward the commercial. Moreover, the commercial seems to be working. Sainsbury’s is selling chocolate bars in the period wrappers seen at the end of the ad. According to Sainsbury’s, each bar sells for £1 with 50p going to the Royal British Legion; 5,000 bars are being sold every hour. However, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has received 724 complaints about the commercial as of November 27. The complaints center on two issues. First, the commercial is “offensive.” Second, it is not clear until the end that the commercial is indeed a commercial. While the ASA recognizes that some may find the commercial “offensive,” it “is not likely to break the rules surrounding harm or offense.” At the same time, the ASA also believes “the ad is obviously distinguishable from editorial content and is therefore not likely to mislead.” For more information on the ASA’s stance, see:

The reasons people find the ad offensive have been most clearly articulated in The Guardian by Charlie Brooker and Ally Fogg. Brooker has charged:

It’s all very poignant, if you mentally delete the bit where a supermarket logo hovers over the killing fields, which you can’t. . . . Millions of young men were slaughtered during the first world war – “body-bagged for life”, in Sainsbury’s parlance – and doubtless as they lay dying in foreign fields, gazing down at what remained of their mud-caked, punctured, broken bodies, gasping their final agonised breaths, it would have been a great source of comfort for them to know their noble sacrifice would still be honoured a century later, in an advert for a shop.

What disturbs Fogg the most is the commercial’s very poignancy:

Exploiting the first world war for commercial gain is tasteless. This, however, is not what disturbs me most. The really upsetting details are the stunning shot of the robin on the wire, the actors’ trembles as they cautiously emerge from the trenches, half expecting a sniper’s bullet, the flicker of understanding in the eyes as the young soldiers reach into their pockets at the end. The film-makers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.

Professor Mark Connelly, who teaches military history at the University of Kent, has attacked the commercial from a different angle: it contributes to a fundamental misunderstanding of the war.

So far from being typical of the way the armies on the Western Front behaved in 1914, Connelly claims the Christmas truce was exceptional. How did such an extraordinary event come to loom so large in the public imagination? Connelly argues that it dovetails nicely with what has become a prevailing (but inaccurate) memory of the war among the British population: a futile conflict waged incompetently by Britain’s military and political leadership in which young men were compelled to fight against their will. The truce fits within this narrative by indicating that the war was waged by men who bore no hatred for one another and were only forced into the trenches by their governments. Connelly has a point. Although a number of battalions along the front participated in the truce, its observance was extremely spotty, and it did not always revolve around celebrating Christmas (e.g. many units agreed to a truce merely to remove bodies from no-man’s-land).

This entire debate raises a number of questions that transcend World War I. For example, to what extent should commercials and other such productions get history “right”? And at what point do historical events cease to be a source of pain? One Thing after Another considered the former issue in its last post, so let us look at the latter. The question of when historical events are no longer sensitive topics was brought home to One Thing after Another when it encountered the following item: the Teatanic tea infuser.


A product blurb has this to say about the Teatanic:

Now this is what we call a novelty product! Not for everyone, but the Teatanic Unsinkable Tea Infuser makes a great gag gift for someone who actually likes tea. It’s supposed to be boatloads of fun as it pays tribute to the Titanic. But unlike the ship, it won’t sink and cause the deaths of about 1502 people. It will only cause a smile to cross your face when you’re about to take the first sip of your favorite tea. To enjoy some tea, just pop the top off the unique Teatanic and stuff its hull with your favorite brand of tea leaves. Then close it up and set it in your mug to steep.

The jolly reference to the deaths of 1502 people suggests that enough time has elapsed so that we shouldn’t feel so very bad about the Titanic‘s sinking. But why should the Titanic‘s demise in 1912 be any less disturbing than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of young men in 1914? After all, One Thing after Another does not remember critics lamenting that the movie Titanic (1997) made the sinking beautiful (in the process of earning millions of dollars). In other words, why do people look at Titanic any differently than at Sainsbury’s Christmas commercial?

The answer appears to be that World War I assumes a much more important place in national narratives than the sinking of the Titanic. As Connelly has claimed, there is a fairly durable memory of the war that sees it not merely as a tragedy but also as an object lesson for the nation. Never again, this lesson goes, should young British men be sacrificed needlessly in large numbers due to the blunders and dishonesty of politicians. This tragic lesson probably seems particularly relevant to the British public since it believes that its country’s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was a terrible mistake. It does not matter to the public that most historians see World War I in a very different light that does not make the conflict immediately relevant to contemporary British foreign policy.

For many Britons, then, using World War I as an opportunity to sell chocolate and the Sainsbury’s brand is an abuse of the conflict’s memory. The sinking of the Titanic, however, is not as central to a national (or any other major) narrative. For that reason, apparently, we can stream Titanic on Netflix as we drink our Teatanic-infused tea from a cup–without any feelings of remorse.

World War I: History versus Memory

2014 WWI Talk

Today in the Dana Center at 4 PM, Professors Meg Cronin (English), Phil Pajakowski (History), Ann Norton (English), and Hugh Dubrulle (History) made a series of presentations to commemorate the centenary of World War I’s outbreak. The program as a whole was entitled, “‘What, Then, Was War?’:” Representing and Remembering World War I. The turnout was very good, and a number of students, faculty, and staff stayed afterwards to discuss the presentations as well as to socialize. If possible, One Thing after Another will try to obtain the presentations of all the participants. For now, it will have to make do with Professor Dubrulle’s comments which are reproduced below.

My paper, which is about the differences between history and memory when applied toward World War I, will do something toward synthesizing much of what we have heard up until now.

What distinction am I making when I use words like “history” and “memory” to mean different things? Perhaps the following anecdote will make some sense of the matter.

Many years ago, a Soviet journalist visiting Paris asked a small boy in a working-class quarter what the child knew about the Paris Commune. The boy responded: “Do you mean what they teach you in school, or what Papa says?”

History is what they teach you in school; memory is what Papa says. If we were to draw a Venn diagram, there would be an overlap between the two because, after all, Papa probably went to school.

However, the differences are significant. History is the interpretation of the past that professional historians create according to the dictates of their discipline. Memory is the popular understanding of the past that is cobbled together by everyday people from their own experiences, movies, literature, stories, family lore, popular history, magazines, pictures, monuments, commemorations, museums, and so on.

Recently, historians have investigated the history of memory—how and why it has changed over time. And indeed, the history of memory has become a hot topic. Interestingly enough, much of this study began with works about World War I and memory. I’m thinking primarily in this case of George Mosse’s Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (1991).

Memory’s study of history, of course, has been much less methodical—and it would be unfair of us to criticize because memory is not a discipline the way history is. But it is fair to point out that memory is not created in the same way as history, nor does it serve the same purpose.

A good place to start is by looking at “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” which was installed in the moat at the Tower of London in August to commemorate World War I’s outbreak. The moat has been filled with over 888,000 ceramic poppies—one for each British soldier killed during the conflict. We could say much about this “event”—about how it is an interesting cross between art installation, charity fundraiser, space for “personal reflection,” and tribute to those who served in the war (the Financial Times has described it as a “a very 21st-century blend of spectacle and ‘edutainment’.”). What strikes me forcefully is the extent to which the memory of this conflict dwells on the war dead. There are the 888,000 poppies, one for each fatality. And the poppy itself is associated with the dead on the Western Front, mainly because of the poem, “In Flanders Field” (1915). The Royal British Legion has kept the symbol of the poppy alive since 1921 with its Remembrance Day fundraisers during which they sell commemorative red poppies made of paper.

So the war is remembered as a great tragedy in which the dead feature prominently, mainly as victims. This vision of “crosses, row on row” is yoked to a narrative of the war in which incompetent political and military leaders in all countries inadvertently led Europe into war, conducted that war in a bloody and unimaginative manner, and then subsequently made a hash of the peace. According to this story, a generation of young men, fed on illusions by their elders, were disabused of their notions by trench warfare before they were killed in their hundreds of thousands.

So strong and convincing is the force of this narrative, you might ask, “Is this interpretation really just memory? Isn’t it the verdict of history?” The answer is, “No.” Aside from the fact that history’s verdicts are always temporary, the current state of World War I historiography does not look at all like this picture. I will return to historiography in a minute, but not before I say something about how this memory came to be.

Like history, memory plays out differently in various places. For Russians, the war does not loom quite so large in their memory as elsewhere because it is mere prelude to 1917, Year 1 in their short, Communist 20th century. And in Germany, memory of World War I is muted because the conflict contributes to the difficulty of finding a usable past that includes Hitler, World War II, and the Holocaust.

Memory is like history in other ways; it is contested. Before the conflict had even ended, the memory of WWI was the object of a great battle. We have to realize that many participants were extremely anxious that their version, their understanding, and their narrative of the war would not be forgotten. One of the characters in Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (1916) worries that later generations would not understand what had happened during the war: “Whatever you tell them they won’t believe you. Not out of malice. .  . but because they just won’t be able to. . . . Nobody’s going to know. Just you. . . . We’ll forget. We’re already forgetting, old man!” And a great many people, like Barbusse, wanted to tell the bitter and ironic story that many remember today. These included a huge collection of figures as diverse as Britain’s war poets (Sassoon, Graves, Gurney, Rosenberg, Owen, Jones, etc.); the German expressionist sculptor, Ernst Barlach; the Italian symbolist poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti; and the German painter/printmaker Otto Dix.

But if we are good historians and we look at the source material, we also have to realize that during and shortly after the war, there was a competing narrative. It recognized the war as a tragedy, but refused to admit that the conflict was futile or purposeless, and frequently expressed an austere patriotism. We see this attitude in the great neo-classical war memorials like Edwin Luytens’ Cenotaph in London or Sir Reginald Blomfield’s Menin Gate (which Siegfried Sassoon described as a “sepulcher of crime”), the tombs of Unknown Soldiers in various countries, and the Tannenberg Memorial. We see it in Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel (1920) which revels in the triumph of the human spirit against everything the machine age can throw at it. We see it in intellectuals like Adolfo Omodeo who described the war as a kind of education in patriotic self-sacrifice to a liberal Italian state. And we see it in Rupert Brooke’s poetry which not only glorified war, but more important, also outsold all the War Poets put together.

Although there is some dispute among historians about the turning point in the struggle between competing memories of the war, the conventional wisdom has it that the late 1920s and early 1930s proved decisive. The philosopher Benedetto Croce wrote that “all true history is contemporary history” in that the perspectives of historians are very much shaped by their current circumstances. The same is true of memory. The economic volatility of the 1920s became the depression of the 1930s. At the same time, the diplomatic system erected by the Paris settlement of 1919 began to disintegrate. It seemed to many in retrospect that the war had proved itself futile in that it had failed to make Europe a better place. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, then, a spate of novels and autobiographies about the conflict (the “war book boom”) suddenly appeared throughout Europe. Perhaps the most influential and best-selling was Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Just as important if not more so for their impact, a wave of war films, all taking advantage of brand new sound technology, came out as well. The most prominent include All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Journey’s End (1930), Westfront 1918 (1930), and Wooden Crosses (1932). The important thing to remember about these works of literature and cinema is that they did not necessarily capture what people thought during the war but what they thought about it ten years later—and that’s a very different thing.

Well might critics—and there were many at the time—complain that by focusing exclusively on the pain and terror of private soldiers, by exaggerating certain elements of the war experience, and by stressing the disillusionment of the rank and file, these works lost track of the big picture which gave the war meaning.  In 1930, Cyril Falls, the military historian, complained that “to pretend that no good came out of the War is frankly an absurdity. The fruits of victory may taste to us as bitter as the fruits of defeat to our late enemies. But how would the fruits of defeat have tasted to us and our Allies? Let any man seriously consider what would have been the situation with a Hohenzollern Germany and a Habsburg Austria dominant in Europe . . . and he will find it hard to deny that some good ‘came of it at last’.”

Of course, the outbreak of World War II seemed to confirm the futility of World War I. Yet it would be mistaken to attribute the survival of our dominant memory of the war to events alone. A tradition of representation has gained momentum in the contemporary era. Each literary or cinematic contribution simultaneously drew sustenance from that tradition while confirming it. Perhaps the two most important works in the English-speaking world that have perpetuated this memory are Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) (as well as the musical and film inspired by the book—Oh! What a Lovely War! [1963]) and Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). As a measure of that tradition, I encourage you to watch the way World War I combat has been treated in film. From All Quiet on the Western Front and Wooden Crosses onward it is incredibly consistent. Check out Paths of Glory (1957), Gallipoli (1981), Legends of the Fall (1994), A Very Long Engagement (2004), The Trench (1999), Joyeux Noel (2005), Passchendaele (2008), and War Horse (2011). We could go on and on. The themes and tropes remain the same. In every case, soldiers are victims, killed in utterly impossible and fruitless assaults for no good reason.

As just one indication of the extent to which this memory of the war as futile act of sacrifice has triumphed, we can point to What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown (1983), a Peanuts cartoon that Charles Schultz produced in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Memory, as everyone will tell you, involves forgetting—meaning that we remember some things at the expense of others. In this particular case, Schultz had Linus recite “In Flanders Fields”—but leaves out the third, patriotic stanza that encourages the reader “to take up our quarrel with the foe.” And then there is Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder Goes Forth, the fourth season of the Blackadder sitcom series (1983-1989). Here the futility of the war and the stupidity of generals are absolutely central to the plot. When historians seek to criticize what they see as the caricature of the conflict that memory has produced, they often refer to the “Blackadder version” of the war.

And what of historians, that is, the people who make history for a living? The historiography of World War I has responded to a variety of stimuli over the decades, including political events, the release of previously unavailable documents, and different kinds of readings. And yet, except for the intervention of certain outsiders (for example, Niall Ferguson and his The Pity of War [1998]), historiographical debate has been confined to fairly familiar ground. That is not to say that historians of World War I are parochial; in fact, in the last twenty years, they have done an excellent job of delineating the global connections that truly made the conflict a world war. Still, debate revolves around questions that would have sounded familiar to scholars decades ago. Who should assume responsibility for the war’s outbreak? How and how well was the war conducted? And what were the war’s most important consequences and legacies?

How have these questions been answered?

Military historians have stressed the extent to which new weapons and techniques eventually formed the basis for modern combined arms tactics that in turn gave armies the capacity to launch assaults that could disrupt the enemy on the operational level, even if he employed a defense in depth. Learning how to deal with mass armies and new technology was very much a “two steps forward one step back” process, but the armies of 1918 bore very little resemblance to the once that went to war in 1914: they had far more firepower (and laid it down far more accurately), they deployed many more specialized troops, they used more flexible tactics, and their command, control, and communication  were far more sophisticated.

Unlike memory, which has compared the origins of World War I to a senseless accidental bar fight, diplomatic historians see something much more complex but comprehensible. If Europe’s leaders made mistakes and misjudgments, they often acted from entirely understandable motives, and the diplomacy of the period reflected their will. For that reason, the great majority of scholars agree that certain states, as measured by their intentions and actions (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and, to a lesser extent, Russia) bear much more responsibility for starting the war than others (such as France and especially Britain). Hand in hand with this judgment is the belief that World War I mattered, and not merely because of its unintended consequences, which included, at the very least, the destruction of four empires.  It arrested, if only for a short time, a deliberate German bid for the domination of Europe—a domination that would not have been particularly pleasant.

The foregoing seems to indicate that the findings of historians are somewhat less judgmental than those of memory. That is not because historians, in general, are any less judgmental than anybody else; they can and should judge. Yet historical judgment emerges from a discipline that encourages careful study and an empathetic spirit. This approach often culminates in measured verdicts. For all of the similarities between the two, it is these specific qualities that set history apart from memory and ensure that what we learn in school is different from what Papa says.

“Inventories of War”: From the Battle of Hastings to Counterinsurgency in Helmand Province

Somme Kit 1916

As part of its commemoration of World War I, the Daily Telegraph‘s web site posted the following which shows graphically how the “typical” English soldier’s kit evolved from that of an Anglo-Saxon housecarl who fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to a present-day sapper in the Royal Engineers stationed in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Such a striking photo essay provides an opportunity for thinking about history, especially the extent to which we resemble our ancestors.

It is hard to make generalizations about soldiers or the trajectory of history based on these kits because they are not exactly comparable. An archer who fought at Agincourt (1415) was not the equivalent of a Yorkist man-at-arms at Bosworth (1485). And the medieval knights who fought at the siege of Jerusalem in 1244 undoubtedly enjoyed much higher social status than the fusiliers who fought under the Duke of Marlborough at Malplaquet (1709). Still, some of the continuities are striking, and Thom Atkinson, who put this collection together, repeatedly points out the similarities between soldiers from different periods. For example, he writes, “While the First World War was the first modern war, as the Somme kit illustrates, it was also primitive. Along with his gas mask a private would be issued with a spiked ‘trench club’ – almost identical to medieval weapons.” In the next frame, he writes, “The Anglo-Saxon warrior at Hastings is perhaps not so very different from the British “Tommy” in the trenches [during World War I].” The caption for the Yorkist man-at-arms at Bosworth states, “‘There’s a spoon in every picture. . . . I think that’s wonderful. The requirement of food, and the experience of eating, hasn’t changed in 1,000 years. It’s the same with warmth, water, protection, entertainment.” Later, while commenting about the private’s kit at Malplaquet, he writes, “Watching everything unfold, I begin to feel that we really are the same creatures with the same fundamental needs.” Moreover, it’s not merely what Atkinson writes but how he writes it. He implicitly compares the Yorkist man-at-arms to the Royal Marines who helped win the Falklands’ war against Argentina in 1982 by stating, “From the cumbersome armour worn by a Yorkist man-at-arms in 1485 to the packs yomped into Port Stanley on the backs of Royal Marines five centuries later, the literal burden of a soldier’s endeavour is on view”–as if to say there is a kind of correspondence between one and the other. Even when Atkinson discusses differences, they morph into similarities. While writing about the kit of the trained caliverman who prepared to repulse the Spanish Armada in 1588, Atkinson claims, “The similarities between the kits are as startling as the differences. Notepads become iPads, 18th-century bowls mirror modern mess tins; games such as chess or cards appear regularly.” In other words, almost every item today has some sort of medieval or early modern antecedent. And, indeed, the various kits are presented as part of a single evolution. The “bolt-action Lee-Enfield” rifle that was the standard weapon of the infantryman in 1916 becomes the precursor of the “laser-sighted light assault carbine” of the sapper in Afghanistan in 2014. Likewise, “the pocket watch of 1916 is today a waterproof digital wristwatch.”

In this context, it seems like a good idea to refer to the thoughts with which John Lynn, one of America’s leading military historians, opens Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (2003). Lynn pays tribute to the ways in which warfare has remained constant over time. The soldier, he argues, has always been the perpetrator and victim of “havoc and suffering.” Fear, discomfort, danger, and death have ever been the lot of the soldier who is required to display “endurance, self-sacrifice, and heroism.” For those reasons, we have a tendency, Lynn claims, to see this “universal soldier” as an “unchanging agent of pillage, destruction, and death,” an “eternal, faceless killer.” When we look at soldiers through the ages from this perspective, we convince ourselves that “only weapons and tactics have changed, not the men who have wielded them.” This perspective seems to be precisely the one that Atkinson has chosen. Atkinson’s survey of kit seems to indicate that all soldiers are more or less the same, regardless of the era in which they lived; only the weapons are different.

Yet, as Lynn argues, the soldier is not universal in either time or space. Every soldier is the product of a distinct culture that believed different things and tried to live up to different values. Lynn stresses that “one culture’s bravery is another’s bravado and one’s mercy is another’s meekness.” Just because the Anglo-Saxon housecarl who fought under King Harold at Hastings had a spoon doesn’t mean he was at all like the lance corporal who was dropped over Arnhem with the 1st Parachute Brigade in 1944. While both men may have subscribed to a code of honor, those codes would have been extremely different. Each, of course, was generated by a society that had very little in common with the other. That they were both soldiers makes them part of a guild of sorts, but it is certainly not enough to make them the same

This matter points to a larger issue with which all historians struggle constantly. There is a fundamental consistency in human nature. Across the ages, we have worked, we have loved, and we have played. And when we study the work, love, and play of people from the past, we see something of ourselves in our forbears. When we see that the Anglo-Saxon housecarl had a spoon, we delight in the discovery because we, too, have spoons, and we feel a kind of kinship. Some years ago, the blog master went to the Museum of Science in Boston to see an exhibit on Roman artifacts recovered from Pompeii. He was stunned at how modern-looking Roman plumbing was, particularly the spigots, and he felt a closeness to the Romans that he had never sensed before. Yet we cannot make the mistake of thinking that housecarls and Roman plumbers were just like us. Their work, love, and play (which oftentimes was very different from ours) did not signify the same things to them as our work, love, and play signify to us.

The job of the historian, then, is almost impossible. It does not consist of pointing out how earlier peoples were like us. Rather, the historian seeks to translate these earlier peoples to contemporary readers and students. The impossibility of the task has to do with the act of translation. The Anglo-Saxon had a spoon much like ours, but the food the Anglo-Saxon ate, as well as the way in which eating fit in his peculiar culture and society, is almost incomprehensible to us. The historian must somehow bridge the gap between this incomprehensible world and ours, but using our language and our ideas–tools that are not always well suited to the job. In other words, scholars are in the business of rendering the alien familiar, and that is a hard row to hoe.

World War I Began 100 Years ago Yesterday

If you pay attention to such things, you’ll know that yesterday, June 28, 2014, was widely remembered as the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak. Technically, of course, World War I did not start on June 28, 1914. Rather, on that day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Such a war was properly a Balkan conflict, and some historians have referred to the outbreak of war between the two countries as the Third Balkan War (to distinguish it from the first two–in 1912-1913 and 1913). The Austro-Hungarian government would have preferred a small war against Serbia instead of a big war involving all of Europe, but as almost all historians agree, Austria-Hungary was willing to risk that big war to obtain what it wanted. Of course, as we all know, that risk became a reality. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, France on August 3, and Belgium on August 4. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4. Since most of the great European powers were also global powers as well, their participation in the conflict made it truly a world war.

This war was of great importance to the world because at that point, Europe was the center of the globe in a way that it was not before and would never be again. On the eve of the conflict, 25% of the world’s population was European (the corresponding figure today is 12%). Europe accounted for 60% of the world’s iron and steel production, 56% of the world’s coal, and 62% of the world’s exports. Europe was also the source of 83% of the world’s foreign investment. If Europe was the most important part of the global economy, London was its financial and commercial capital. At the same time, cities like Paris and Vienna were the culture capitals of the world. During a period that witnessed the high tide of European imperialism, decisions reached in London, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow reverberated across the globe; these were the capitals of the international political system. Any conflict involving the world’s political, economic, and cultural center (especially since the belligerents were evenly matched and the war dragged on for four years) was bound to have an enormous impact on the rest of the world.

Hundreds of web sites commemorating the war’s outbreak have been erected on the web, many with excellent photos, video, and documentation. It seems unfair to single out one, but One Thing after Another very much enjoyed the The Wall Street Journal‘s tribute to the war’s legacy. Although it’s not perfect, and sometimes it’s a little buggy, it does capture the multiplicity of ways in which World War I changed the world and the lives of the people who lived in it:

If the war’s outbreak has exercised historians, its conduct has also sparked a great deal of argument. Again, it seems unfair to zero in on a couple of essays that capture the essence of this debate, but One Thing after Another noticed these two:

Adam Hochschild is the co-founder of Mother Jones and author of several popular histories, including To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. David Silbey is a military historian who teaches at Cornell University. If One Thing after Another could indulge in a little reductionism, it would describe the debate between these two essays in the following terms. Hochschild presents the old lions-led-by-donkeys argument (first articulated fully by Alan Clark in The Donkeys) that sees the war as a tragedy attributable to the incompetence of military and political leadership. This thesis has exercised a strong hold on the public imagination. Silbey contemptuously refers to it as Blackadder history, after the British sitcom that had Rowan Atkinson traveling through time; the series of episodes on World War I draws heavily on this argument.

Silbey argues that those who led European forces on the Western Front during World War I were faced with difficult, almost unprecedented, military problems. That millions of men died in Northern France between 1914 and 1918–something that seems almost unthinkable to the West today–does not indicate that the military leadership was incompetent. Rather, it indicates that armies found circumstances incredibly difficult, especially since the most recent European wars (particularly the Wars of German Unification and the Russo-Japanese War) provided very little in the way of useful or relevant precedents.

One Thing after Another is bound to say that scholars of World War I tend to side with Silbey on this matter rather than Hochschild. This debate between the two is important, because it points to the discrepancy that often persists between what professional historians write about the past and what the public remembers. But that’s a discussion for another day. For now, it suffices to contemplate World War I’s enormous impact on both nations and individuals. The blog master will pause to remember two great-great uncles who died during the war, one, a newlywed killed in action during the Battle of the Marne (1914), and the other, an adjutant chef (equivalent of a staff sergeant), who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades during a training accident (1916).

2014 is Not the New 1914, China is not the New Germany, and America is not the New Britain

Europe in 1914

In the blog War on the Rocks, Michael Neiberg published an interesting piece on a phenomenon that has recently taken off among commentators of the international scene:

As we approach the centenary of World War I’s outbreak, a number of observers have tended to compare the current international situation to the one existing in 1914. In these scenarios, the United States assumes the role of Britain in 1914: a sated, world power that seeks to defend the status quo. China is the new Germany, an important regional power that increasingly throws its weight around in world affairs. However, these are not the only analogies made to 1914. As Neiberg points out, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, has likened the current situation between his country and China to Anglo-German relations before World War I. Commentary inspired by the crisis in the Ukraine has Russia as the new Germany and one of the Baltic states as the new Belgium. Others have framed Syria as the new Balkans, a cockpit of great power competition.

Obviously, this means of understanding the past is not unique to our time. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy turned to Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962), an account of World War I’s outbreak, for guidance in finding a peaceful resolution. And during the 1990s, observers repeatedly claimed that the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia would precipitate a new Balkan crisis much like the one that had led to world war in 1914.

Of course, 1914 is not the only date to which statesmen refer in times of trial. In 1956, during the Suez crisis, Anthony Eden, Britain’s Prime Minister, saw Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s leader, as a reincarnation of Hitler. Eden did not hesitate to compare the situation in Egypt to the Munich crisis of 1938. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush (who was a World War II veteran) described Saddam Hussein and the Middle Eastern situation in much the same way.

As Neiberg points out, there are real problems with seeing the contemporary world through 1914 lenses or the lenses of any other year for that matter. For one thing, although Great Power competition was a long-term cause of World War I, the Great Powers were actually getting along relatively well in the summer of 1914. What really lit the powder keg of Europe was a conflict between a weak, declining Great Power (Austria-Hungary) and a rogue, medium-sized country (Serbia). Reckless decision-making on the part of these two states, coupled with irresponsibility among several of the Great Powers (particularly Germany and Russia), led to a world war. In other words, the Great Power competition between Britain and Germany was not a major factor in the outbreak of the war. If that’s the case, what does that say about relations between the new Britain (America) and the new Germany (China)? In other words, how useful is the 1914 analogy in getting the United States right with China today?

Even more important is the general difficulty with making historical analogies of the sort that Neiberg criticizes. 2014 is clearly not the new 1914. Politically, economically, socially, culturally, and technologically, the world has changed immensely in the last 100 years. Not only that, unlike the leaders who guided the fortunes of the Great Powers in 1914 and blindly headed into the abyss (in the same way that we all blindly head into the future), our statesmen have the benefit of hindsight and know what happened in 1914. The problem, of course, is that knowing what happened in 1914 is not immediately relevant to what we see today. George Santayana’s claim, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (which has become something of an axiom), is incorrect because history never repeats itself; circumstances are always different.

If historians always dwell on the uniqueness of events, what then is the value of history as we survey the present? A potential answer to this question emerged when Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2013), spoke at the NHIOP last week. An audience member asked what we could learn from the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Logevall’s response was cautious and rightfully so. As he pointed out, events do not teach lessons; people construct various lessons from events. The lesson Logevall himself learned from the Vietnam experience was that American power is limited and that policymakers needed to remember that ends have to be balanced against means.

Some people may have been disappointed by this response because they expected a more specific answer. Perhaps they anticipated something akin to The Princess Brides’s “Never fight a land war in Asia” (a dictum endorsed by even higher authorities such as Douglas McArthur when he command UN forces during the Korean War and Robert Gates when he was Secretary of Defense).

However, as Logevall’s answer suggests, the study of history does not provide precise answers as we tackle today’s problems. Rather, the study of history cultivates judgment, and that is where its true value lies.

World War I: History, Memory, and Commemoration

WWI 18 pd 1917

The latest issue of The Economist has just hit the newsstands (and the internet) with an extended article about World War I: “Still in the Grip of the Great War: 100 Years after 1914.”

This essay provides a sketch of the historical arguments surrounding the origins of the conflict and discusses some of the more recent works on the war. At the same time, it also speaks to the connections between academic history, popular memory, and official commemoration. Simply put, academic history is what professors write, popular memory is how the public remembers, and official commemoration is how governments choose to memorialize. In every category, as you may imagine, positions are contested to greater or lesser extents. At the same time, all three of these categories are linked, but all three are very different. For instance, academics can influence popular views of an event (to use an example from the article, Alan Clark is a good case in point, although most academics would dispute his academic credentials), but the way professors study such things differs immensely from the way in which the public goes about remembering the past. In the particular case of Britain and World War I, historians are not really on the same wavelength as the public. Where much of the British public still seems attached to the notion that World War I was a great, pointless, bloody tragedy, historians increasingly tend to argue that a) Britain ought to have fought and b) Britain fought as well as it could. Finally, both academics and popular opinion can inform official commemoration. Britain again is an excellent case in point. For a number of reasons (some of which are outlined in the article), the British government is more committed to commemorating World War I than other European states. And that commitment has led to a vigorous debate that has involved both professors and the public.

Why spill all of this ink (or use up all these pixels) over something that happened a century ago? Sure, The Economist points out that World War I and its origins are “endlessly fascinating, hugely complex and charged with emotion.” But what are the stakes in this debate over the war? As in many other cases, arguments about history reflect disputes about the present. As The Economist asserts, “the controversies about the causes, strategies and consequences of the war are matters of contemporary concern.” Britain’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was wrong to suggest that “there was a crude left/right split over the war” in Britain today, but where one stands on the war says something about where one stands now when it comes time to discuss international relations, the use of force, and a host of related issues. These collisions between history, memory, and commemoration occur all the time.

An obvious example of this sort of thing that occurred in America is the huge debate that took place between 1994 and 1995 over an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum entitled The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Cold War. The exhibit included a portion of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. To make a long story short, the debate culminated in the cancellation of the exhibit. You can read more about this story in the following essay (Michael Hogan’s “The Enola Gay Controversy: History, Memory, and the Politics of Presentation”):

Although the argument over representations of the Enola Gay involved veterans groups that did not believe the Smithsonian’s exhibit respected their own lived experience of World War II, this debate was not just about the past; it had great contemporary relevance. Moreover, the split was not a simple division between right and left. To quote Edward Linenthal, who wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education shortly after the incident’s conclusion, the exhibit had been “caught between memory and history,” between the “commemorative voice and the historical voice.” Surely, the same thing will happen with World War I among the countries that dare to commemorate it.

What If World War I Had Never Happened?

Franz Ferdinand with Wife

July 2014 will witness the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Everybody, from media outlets to authors, are anticipating this anniversary with a series of publications. A flood of books covering the war, especially its outbreak, have recently hit the market. These include Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, Geoffrey Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe, Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914, and Sean McMeekin’s July 1914. Several newspapers and magazines, particularly in Britain, have produced multi-issue histories of the war. The Daily Telegraph‘s coverage has been particularly impressive:

The British Library has produced a terrific set of essays about the war, written by some top-notch historians:

A number of massive digital projects associated with World War I have also recently emerged. Britain’s National Archives has digitized several thousand World War I unit diaries:

The quirkiest commemoration of World War I, however, comes to us from NPR which has produced the following series: “What If World War I Had Never Happened?”

You can read the summaries and the transcripts, but it might be more fun to listen to the audio. As we approach July 2014, more and more material will get published, and we’ll try to keep you abreast of the highlights.