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November 11, 2006

Posted by Teresa at 07:37 PM *

Sorry. I know I usually post about the Great War today. Happens it’s one of those subjects where the realization’s hit me hard that I’m not going to be able to talk to Mike about it any more.

I’ll give you an observation of his that I remember: We were talking about the way the military on both sides kept trying mass “over the top” charges into the no man’s land between the trenches, and taking staggering losses. Doing that a few times would have been bad enough, but in WWI, both sides kept it up for years.

I said, usually if a general plans and conducts a major battle that winds up taking a pitifully small amount of ground, and gets hundreds of thousands of his troops killed, he’s relieved of command.

Mike said, after a while, all the generals had fought battles like that. If you went on doing the same thing, at least it was something you knew. You wouldn’t do any worse than any other commander. But if you tried something different and it didn’t work, then heaven help you.

(See also, Ghosts of the Great War: 2003, 2004, 2005.)

Comments on 11/11/11:
#1 ::: Chris S. ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 09:10 PM:

I rocked my nephew to sleep tonight, thinking, "Never, never, never. Not you. Never."

I wonder how many millions thought the same thing? I wonder how many are thinking it now?

#2 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 10:06 PM:

we automate the process it entails
getting the men there swiftly as we can
they're expedited on the well-laid rails
each of them expecting to be in the van
they bump along in lorries or in carts
at sixty miles per hour the meeting's quick
we praise then damn the dark mechanic arts
that promised so much but were all a trick
the youths are eager they hope for quick fame
a bit of glory a tale for round the fire
easier access to the arms of a dame
their names sent down the telegraphic wire
reality is that each hits a wall of lead
and glory doesn't matter when you're dead

#3 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 10:26 PM:

Every year, Teresa, one of your links is of the Menin Gate of Ypres. Earlier this year I ran across the tradition of the Last Post, where every evening at 6 since 1928, that call has been played at the Gate by a bugler from the local volunteer fire brigade, in uniform. During the WWII German occupation, the tradition was continued at a cemetary in Britain. The night that Ypres was liberated, the ceremony resumed, even though fighting in the town was still on.

Here are some pictures from the 90th anniversary of the Sommne this year.

#4 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 10:29 PM:

"I said, usually if a general plans and conducts a major battle that winds up taking a pitifully small amount of ground, and gets hundreds of thousands of his troops killed, he's relieved of command.

"Mike said, after a while, all the generals had fought battles like that. If you went on doing the same thing, at least it was something you knew. You wouldn't do any worse than any other commander. But if you tried something different and it didn't work, then heaven help you."

This is oddly isomorphic to a point David Hartwell made to us about book publishing, years ago, when we were first getting into the field.

He observed that, in your typical publishing company, if an editor does the things conventional wisdom says he or she should, and they fail to make the company money, that editor has a good chance of being forgiven. Whereas if the same editor tries something different and it fails to make money, the editor's in trouble.

This always seemed to me a pointed argument against the idea, fondly advanced by business people everywhere, that profitability is the only metric of performance. In fact unprofitable performances are constantly forgiven, provided they're delivered with unimpeachable conventionality. Businesses like to--need to!--make money. But businesses are also cultures, and cultures need to enforce social norms. Over the years I've found that this explains a great deal of institutional folly.

#5 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 10:40 PM:

Patrick: It is indeed an isomorphic observation, so good on you. If I may paint in some bits of additional highlighting:

I remember David as saying that if an editor takes on what's perceived as a cynically commercial project, and it loses money, everyone says "Oh well, conventional wisdom was wrong on that one," and forgives the editor. But if the editor takes on an odd project because he or she is convinced it's good, and then it loses money, everyone blames the editor for being insufficiently down-to-earth and practical.

I hasten to add -- lest this nuanced point be seized upon and misused by self-publishing enthusiasts and "publishing is broken" dweebs -- that in spite of these discouragements, editors as a class are forever buying loved but theoretically impractical books. It's one of the ways bestsellers happen.

And now I'll stop talking about publishing, because that's not what this thread is about.

#6 ::: Glenda Larke ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 10:41 PM:

My dad fought in the Great War, in France. He didn't want to go, but he was one of 9 brothers, and he was elected because he wasn't married - either that or face total ostracism. He took part in the battle of Ypres. He volunteered to run the mule train up to the trenches from the ammo dumps - he reckoned that way he wouldn't know anything about it if he was hit. And apart from that he never told us kids anything. Ever.

After it was over it was 18 months before he got home to Australia - there were no ships.

My mother told me that when WW2 started, he went around for a whole day saying "The buggers are at it again, the buggers are at it again." I think of him a lot November 11th, and all those wasted years.

#7 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 10:48 PM:

Thank you, Claude.

The Menin Gate
is covered with names
on all sides.

They're all from one battle, and that one far from the worst.

#8 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 10:53 PM:

Gen. Melchett: Now Field Marshal Haig has formulated a brilliant tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field.

Capt. Blackadder: Would this brilliant plan involve us climbing over the top of our trenches and walking slowly toward the enemy?

Capt. Darling: How did you know that, Blackadder? It's classified information.

Capt. Blackadder: It's the same plan that we used last time, sir. And the seventeen times before that.

Gen. Melchett: E-e-exactly! And that's what's so brilliant about it. It will catch the watchful Hun totally off guard. Doing exactly what we've done eighteen times before will be the last thing they'll expect us to do this time. There is, however, one problem.

Capt. Blackadder: That everyone always gets slaughtered in the first ten seconds?

Gen. Melchett: Exactly. Field Marshall Haig is concerned that this may be depressing the men a tadge...

--"Blackadder Goes Forth" ("Captain Cook")

#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 11:17 PM:

Glenda Larke, your father was right. And I'm convinced that in some terrible too-close-to-see way, we still live within the orb of that war.

#10 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2006, 11:24 PM:

The thing about WWI that I would want a class of say, tenth graders to take away from the history lesson is that the Great War was an absolute, total, complete, insane, ignoble, pointless clusterfuck, from the first death to the last, from the initiation of hostilities to the miserable malicious way the peace was planned.

I doubt it's taught that way.

#11 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 12:29 AM:

The isomorphic observation can be generalized to every industrial organization. In my industry, the observation was once voiced with the maxim, "Nobody ever lost his job for buying from IBM." To me, the most horrifying thing about WW1 was the way its antagonists ruthlessly constructed an extremely efficient and well-managed industrial process for manufacturing corpses.

The conservatism that allowed those generals to keep sending those men over the top in wave after futile wave is one of the more pernicious features of industrial cultures in general. The corpse factory depended on that conservatism operating from top to bottom, tooth to tail, even as the corpses piled higher and higher.

For a long time after WW1, we had a population of veterans and war survivors who served as walking visceral reminders of what happens when industrial engineering goes so starkly mad. (I saw a bit on CNN this morning about the few still living American WW1 veterans.) I miss having them around in sufficient numbers that you could expect to see them. I miss the effect they had on people.

I always sing Eric Bogle's And The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda on Armistice Day. Here's the final verse, the way I sing it:

So now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
I see my old comrades how proudly they march
Renewing their deeds of past glory
I see the old men all tired sick and sore
Those weary old soldiers of an old forgotten war
And the young people ask me what are they marching for
Some days I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Mathilda
While the old men still answer the call
And year after year their numbers grow fewer
Someday no one will march there at all
Waltzing Mathilda waltzing Mathilda
Who will go waltzing Mathilda with me
And their ghosts may be heard
As they're marching by that billabong
Who will go waltzing Mathilda with...

Soon enough, we won't even have guys like Eric Bogle anymore. He wrote that song in 1972.

#12 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 12:34 AM:

Oh, it is taught that way. I read the histories, and found it impossible to fathom. What on earth were they thinking? How on earth were they allowed to go on in this fashion? It was starkly, blindingly obvious to me that Haig should have been replaced after Loos, in 1915. He should have been forcibly removed for manifest incompetence after the Somme, and had he been one of Lincoln's generals, certainly would have been. After Third Ypres, he should have been cashiered and shot.

Then I read Forester's "The General" and I understood the process, and simultaneously became aware that to understand all is not to forgive all.

#13 ::: Catherine Crockett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 12:38 AM:

Re: #10, Lizzy L

I went to school in Toronto. WWI was taught as the very definition of a rotating clusterfuck, Versailles treaty included. Special attention was paid to the use of Canadian, Newfoundlander, Australian and New Zealander troops as cannon-fodder. The descriptions and depictions of trench life, combat, and casualties were very explicit.

I'm just old enough to remember there being rather a lot of very traumatized old people around. I remember being warned not to ever be alone in a room with the shell-shocked inpatients at the hospital where my GP was.

The largest Canadian cemetary is in Flanders. Thanks to regional regiments, many towns, some pretty large, lost the vast majority of their adult male populations in a single day. We aren't going to forget this one in a hurry.

It most definitely _is_ taught that way in Canada. I would bet that it is in Australia and New Zealand, also.

#14 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 12:43 AM:

NPR had a story on ATC yesterday about a guy doing living history interviews with World War One Vets. There are apparently 14 American vets left alive, and the guy spoke to half-a-dozen or so of them.

There's also a link at that page to a Living History radio documentary project, hosted by Walter Cronkite.

#15 ::: D Bratman ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:11 AM:

Even the politicians became aware of the futility of this. I was quite amazed to read that, by the end of 1917, Lloyd George was driven to reducing the draft calls so as to deprive his generals of machine-gun fodder. If they didn't have enough men to waste, they couldn't attack like that.

What's unclear about this story is why he didn't just replace the generals, or order (or get someone to order) them not to try these useless assaults. But perhaps there weren't any generals who wouldn't do the same thing.

A war of attrition, however horrible, is not always so strategically useless. Grant used it on Lee, and lost more men than Lee did, but the point is, he could easily afford to lose more men, and he only kept it up for one year, not four. WW1 is not at all the same thing: for one thing, these frontal assaults inflicted virtually no damage on the enemy at all, and faith was in artillery bombardments that would cut the lines "this time for sure."

As the generals saw it, the only other course of action was to sit there and wait for the enemy to attack and possibly get through. Well, you could sit there and wait for them to lose all their men. That's pretty much how the Germans eventually lost: too many really big, really costly assaults.

#16 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:15 AM:

I'm somewhat less concerned about how WW1 is taught and more concerned about how it's learned. Living in the USA, I hear the refrain that "America had to come to Europe's rescue in two world wars" often enough that on days like today I just want to provision the boat, raise the sails and head generally West until I run out of ocean.

#17 ::: CaseyL ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:23 AM:

When I first read Tuchman's "Guns of August," I remember thinking that WWI would have been the stuff of great (black) comedy, if only it hadn't killed or maimed most of a generation's worth of men throughout the world. I don't by any means intend to trivialize the death and destruction; it's just that the war was so dingdong.

I've tried to get into the heads of the commanders and heads of state - tried to see the war as an example of "generals are always fighting the last war," tried to understand the dynamic of the interlocking alliances - and that's about as close as I can get to comprehending the thing. People were still thinking in Napoleanic terms, a century later.

One of the best portrayals of the most poignant consequences of WWI is Al Stewart's song "The Last Day of June, 1934," with its haunting line about "a world forever finished with war."

I think, when people wonder why the world ignored Adolph Hitler for so long, they forget how traumatic WWI was, and how the only way the civilized world could make sense of it or justify it was to believe, with all their hearts, that it really was "the war to end all wars."

Paying attention to Hitler, recognizing what was going on, and deciding to put a stop to it, would have meant girding up for another mass slaughter when the memory of the last one was too fresh. I can understand that a lot more than I can understand the thinking that led to WWI.

#18 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:25 AM:

I've spent much of the day earwormed by Bogle's "No Man's Land". I can think of one or two people I'd like to permanently earworm with it. That, or Kipling's "Mesopotamia".

Two years ago I drove from Somerset to the Dorset coast along the A350, a few days after Remembrance Sunday. A cold misty day with nobody about, through half a dozen or so tiny villages, each with its memorial and sad red wreath. Too many tiny villages where the number of names on the monument tells its own story, the wiping out of an entire generation of young men.

And the failure to even clean up the mess properly afterwards meant that it was all for nothing, that a generation later there was another war, with its own horrors, if fewer new names on those monuments.

#19 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:32 AM:

j h woodyatt @ 11. Bogle was wrong in plain fact. Far from dying away, April 25 gets stronger each year. The young people know fine well what the march is for, and they turn out to it, and march themselves, wearing the medals of their ancestors.

Perceptions differ. Anyone who sees a glorification of war or an expression of jingoism in this is right to condemn it and ignore it; but I have never seen that in it myself. It always seems to me that this is an expression of shared grief, a sense of terrible loss. Yes, there is determination that it must never happen again, but also deep, abiding, sombre respect. I think that it is meet that we should do this, and I am glad that Bogle got it wrong. You may differ.

#20 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:34 AM:

You know, unless there's been some change for the better, WWI (not to mention a lot of the rest of history) is not taught in US schools.

As I remember it, we went over the Revolution several times, the Civil War pretty thoroughly at least once, and white exploration and US western expansion a lot. I also remember WWII fairly clearly. And, oddly enough, the labor movement.

#21 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:38 AM:

In the '04 and '05 comments there's a link to an online image of Munning's painting of Flowerdew's Squadron (a cavalry charge into the teeth of machine gun fire). It's NG.

Here's a good one.

#22 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:41 AM:

Much as I deplore the exploits, morals and thinking ability of many of the commanders -- I say thank you to those who served honorably and following their oaths. I did not serve, myself. I still wish to say, thank you. From all I've read, it appears a difficult, nasty, dirty task you undertook. And most, if not the vast majority of you, undertook it for reasons I think are honorable.

So -- thank you.

#23 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:45 AM:

I spent a lot of time studying Renaissance art history; not much time studying 20th century art history.

In Renaissance history, there's a real break, a sense of dislocation, in the art of the generation that saw the Black Death. Right before then, there was a generation of painters that seemed poised to really integrate the new interest in classical art into their work - and that stopped for 30 years or so.

I've never noticed that sort of break in art history around WWI (there is one in WWII, where Paris loses its supremacy as the capital of the art world), but as I said, this is not my period. Has anyone seen a break of this sort around WWI? If so, could you indicate what was lost? gained?

(Cubism does not count - Le Demoiselles d'Avignon was painted in 1907.)

#24 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:55 AM:

What about dadaism, which appears to have been born in 1916, and is dedicated to the proposition that everything is essentially meaningless or insane, and that the only appropriate response is mockery? Is this not a strong strain that has influenced Western art ever since?

#25 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:16 AM:

It most definitely _is_ taught that way in Canada. I would bet that it is in Australia and New Zealand, also.

Certainly: Gallipoli (frex) is taught as an example of ANZAC effort, and British officer incompetence.

I think most people in NZ have a mental image of gallant Kiwis, performing a haka before clambering over steep hills into Turkish gunfire as British officers sip tea.

(And the eventual retreat is told as real Number Eight Wire stuff; guns rigged to keep firing random bursts for days after the last soldier had left, etc.)

I can remember when I first realised Winston Churchill had been in charge at Gallipoli, thinking that it was absolutely amazing that the British had ever let him run anything again.

There is also a memorial in Wellington called the Ataturk Memorial. I find it a very touching memorial.

#26 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:16 AM:

Yes, dadaism would count - it's not a movement whose philosophy I much care for, which probably explains why it didn't spring into memory.

And, I think, as part of dadaism and that type of reaction, I think maybe the rejection of the more traditionally minded 19th century painters. Even in the late 70s and early 80s, announcing that you were interested in seriously studying the French Academy painters or the Pre-Raphaelites was, well, professors tended to warn one off of that territory.

#27 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:32 AM:

I moved from the US to Canada last year, and the way Remembrance Day is handled here is one of the biggest cultural differences. In the US, there is very little actual recognition. And, as Margaret O-K points out, WWI is really not taught at all in American schools. Or, the very beginning is taught (interlocking alliances, assassination of the Archduke), and trenches are mentioned, but nothing more. You read Flanders Field, having little sense of the scale of the thing, and then it's on to the 20s and the Depression. It's on the scale of the Spanish-American war; that is, about a day's worth of class time. There are lots of war memorials with names; every town in the northeast has one in its town commons. There are memorial highways, and Veteran of Foreign Wars posts. But it occupies zero position in most people's minds. They wouldn't know what a poppy was, or what it symbolized, if they saw you wearing one.

In Canada, the veteran's care organization sells felt poppies for a dollar apiece starting in early October. You can buy them everywhere, and everyone walking around town wears them -- businessmen, little kids, teenagers. I was very surprised and moved by this last fall.

I think for the US, part of the reason to forget it is that it doesn't have the right storyline. We study the Revolutionary War -- we won and created the land of the free! We study the Civil War -- we won and freed the slaves! We study WWII -- we won and stopped the Nazis! But we don't study WWI or Vietnam in school; there's no happy ending to those, so the question about whether the results justify the costs isn't so comfortably answered.

#28 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:34 AM:

#20: You're right, WWI is pretty much completely skipped over in American history classes. I went to a pretty good private high school and took AP History, and yet I am embarrassed to admit that I know next to nothing about the whys and wherefores of WWI.

I really should remedy that. Can anyone recommend a book that would give me a good overview?

#29 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:35 AM:

To underscore the American ignorance on this, I had literally never heard of Gallipoli until I visited Turkey after university. (And I went to some of the best public schools in the US)

#30 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 03:13 AM:

I was in London in the late 80s on Remembrance/Veteran's Day and it was very different than what I was used to in the US. Although I've noticed that as the Iraq war continues, more attention is paid to it. (I was there for Election Day too - watching the returns on the Beeb was very interesting - especially the bit where they explained the electoral college. I got the feeling they didn't quite believe it.)

One of the problems (currently) with properly teaching history in American is that you can't test for it properly on a multiple guess test. You can test for dates, and who won which battle, but not the important stuff - the why & how. It also means that you test for the boring stuff, but not the interesting stuff - so it's the boring stuff that gets taught.

It's not that you don't need the dates -but if that's all you get, you're certainly not going to consider history interesting or anything that you'll want to pursue on your own.

#31 ::: Daniel Boone ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 03:27 AM:

Er, it might be useful to point out that curricular control over schools in the US is overwhelmingly in the hands of local or county or (in a few cases) state school officials. Moreover, in smaller and less bureaucratic schools, there's enormous individual variation based on the whims of particular teachers, and limited oversight of the extent to which they hew to the curriculum set by the school board. All of which means that it's almost meaningless to make a blanket assertion about what is or is not taught in U.S. schools.

My own anecdotal contribution: My high school history classes were all styled as "American History" classes. World War I was covered in a few pages, little more than dates of American involvement and a few photos of trench warfare. World War II discussion was a similarly brief affair -- Hitler, Normandy, The Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, the internment of Japanese Americans, a page of naval warfare photographs, nuking Japan, all in about six pages.

There was an elective World History class, one semester, that I could have taken, but didn't.

As it happens, I included a lot of military fiction and non-fiction in my youthful voracious reading habits, so I learned a lot about the various battles that way. Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far, that sort of thing. But I got rather less on World War I that way.

#32 ::: Eve ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 03:46 AM:

From Siegfried Sassoon:


I found him in the guard-room at the Base.
From the blind darkness I had heard his crying
And blundered in. With puzzled, patient face
A sergeant watched him; it was no good trying
To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.
And, all because his brother had gone west,
Raved at the bleeding war; his rampant grief
Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling
Half-naked on the floor. In my belief
Such men have lost all patriotic feeling.

#33 ::: Vian ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 03:47 AM:

I was in the middle of Melbourne at 11:00 on Saturday, and it was as breath-takingly, lump-in-throat inducingly moving as it always is when, on the first stroke of 11, everyone stopped where they were, and stood quietly in the sun while the Last Post echoed in the streets. The cafes stopped, the trams, the beautiful young things on their way to the races, the people getting a run on their Christmas shopping. For a silent three minutes, all I could hear was Wilfred Owen and "...they shall not grow old ..."

And then the jets flying over, and the fine spring weather, and the feeling of fury at the waste and ghastliness of it all, which has not dimmed with time. The last note of the Last Post has always sounded like a question to me.

#34 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 04:01 AM:

Re #31

Yes, it's true that there's varying amounts of local control of the curriculum. In Washington state for instance, the basic curriculum is set at the state level, including such requirements as one year's worth of vocational training. These requirements can be further refined by the local school district.

However, at the end of the day, all students in Washington must pass the state test to graduate. So guess what get's taught? To get in to a good college, other, national tests must be taken - with the same result, although to a lesser extent.

Further homogenization of the curriculum is encouraged by the economics of school textbooks. All schools in Texas must buy the same textbooks. I think the same is true for California. So, textbook companies, not being in the business of losing money, write their books to meet the requirements set forth by Texas and California - and the other states are stuck with the results.

The results are bad for history - and much worse & weirder in the sciences.

#35 ::: Vian ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 04:03 AM:

RE: Colonial Curricula

The Australian school curriculum emphasises Gallipoli, and Weren't the Brits a Bunch of Inbred Incompetants. It confidently asserts that the ANZAC landings were directly responsible for the Australian Character, Mateship and Biscuits with Golden Syrup in them. They were therefore a Good Thing but a Bad Idea.

There's recently been a bit more attention paid to the Western Front, particularly after books like _Fly Away Peter_ by David Malouf (Read. This. Book.), but it's still more myth than history which is taught.

#36 ::: Elizabeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 04:24 AM:

I graduated from high school 10 years ago, and we covered WW1 and WW2 on the same test. The only things we really had to learn of either war were the differences in the countries that were allied. Take that anecdotal evidence for what it's worth.

#37 ::: Martyn Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 05:03 AM:

#6 - Glenda - Your father came back. My father and his twin brother seemed to spend much of their final years wondering why their father - a miner well over 40 years old with 8 children and them on the way - volunteered and was lost at the Somme. Two of millions of orphans on both sides. The most poignant war memorial I ever saw was in a tiny village in Austria - the 'enemy'.

#17 - CaseyL - I suggest Hitler was ignored because people remembered rather than forgot; chose to believe that nobody could deliberately want to return there. Wrong, perhaps, but understandable. One of the lessons we need to learn is to keep a very short rein on our leaders who would use military force as a solution for everything (wonder who I mean . . .)

#25 - Keir - You have to remember Churchill was an aristocrat, and you can't understand 20th Century British politics unless you understand the malign grip of aristocrats, and the sea change of the 1964 elections. Americans are only now beginning to get a taste of what happens when you allow 'aristocrats' to run things.

You could argue that Churchill disproves the argument that those who have been to war will move heaven and earth to not go there again. Of course, it is very much more complicated than that - the very guilty sexual thrill he got from the charge and butchering his lesser opponents; the ghastly fiasco that was Gallipoli; the belief that, if you must fight you fight to win as ruthlessly and efficiently as possible.

One thing we must remember when studying history is to at least try to understand the mind sets of the people involved. Yes, we know now that Hitler was a vile monster. Joseph Kennedy (US Ambassador in London and father of what he hoped to be a dynasty of US Presidents) thought he was a fine guy. So did many of his fellow Americans, even after he'd set Europe ablaze. Most of his British admirers got the picture some time before that (but not the Duke of Windsor, it seems)

Do American children study the 'justified war' concept?

#38 ::: amy black ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 06:13 AM:

Vian @ 33:
I was in Melbourne a few hours later and got caught on the wrong side of what I believe was Santa marching down Bourke street. For some reason they played the Austin Powers theme song.

I don't know if this was a usual thing, but we studied WWI in primary school, and not in high school. So as you can imagine I've not studied it in great detail. But I doubt anyone could get through any education in Australia - and the accompanying twelve or so ANZAC days - without the idea that Gallipoli was a clusterfuck, and thus the rest of it could hardly have been much better.

and to 11 and 13:
The RSL tried to ask the guy who burnt the Australian flag at the Cronulla riots to march with them this year (he apologised), but apparently someone complained bitterly. I've had a hunt around, but I originally heard about it in Andrew Bolt's column (blood-pressure-rising-ly right-wing in a conservative tabloid) and I can't bear to read Bolt again to find out if he actually did. The point of which sentence was that young people do indeed march, sometimes even people who might burn flags at riots.

#39 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 06:19 AM:

Conceptually, Gallipoli was pretty good: send the (underemployed) Allied battle fleet through the Dardanelles to Constantinople, and terrify the Turks out of the war, thus defeating one of the Central powers at a stroke and freeing up a large number of British troops from Mesopotamia.

So they sent the fleet in first - but the Turks had fortified the straits and mined them. Maybe a determined effort (with the same indifference to casualties among the sweepers in particular) could have pushed the fleet through into the Sea of Marmara. But Churchill didn't want to risk destroying an entire battle fleet. So, he decided, we'll land on the peninsula, take it with infantry, clear out the forts, then sweep the mines in safety and sail for the Golden Horn.

A good plan. They landed British and Australian troops on the beaches successfully, catching the Turks completely off guard, and then - they just didn't move. God knows why - lack of imagination, lack of dash, too rigid orders. They should have raced inland, but they dug in on the beaches, at the foot of the hills overlooking them. And over the next few days, the Turks recovered themselves, and dug in on top of the hills.

That failure to exploit the first day's successes doomed the expedition.

#40 ::: glenda larke ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 06:27 AM:

#37 Martyn - if he hadn't come back, I wouldn't be here! I wasn't born until the end of the next war...

I have seen the rows and rows of identical white crosses in northern France - with the poppies growing, and even the memory of seeing that brings a lump to my throat. My father was actually sent to Gallipoli, but while in Egypt waiting for transport to Turkey, the troops were withdrawn and they were sent to the cold of a particularly bitter European winter without proper clothing. And one of the saddest things is that he didn't believe in what he was doing, not really. He certainly didn't want to kill anyone, and I suspect that might have had something to do with volunteering for the mule train too.

And then when it was all over - they had to wait so long to come home. Imagine how the troops in Iraq would feel about that. "Sorry chaps, I know your tour of duty is up, but we don't have a way to send you back yet. Just hang around for another 18 months until we find a ship, ok?"

#41 ::: Bez ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 06:45 AM:

Amy @ 38: For "complained bitterly", read "throw missiles at the 17-year-old if he marched". The RSL has said they'll have him attend an unspecified Dawn Service instead.

Dave @ 19: I'd say that the jingoistic and flag-wavy content of Anzac Day has increased, but only from certain quarters. Compare and contrast Howard's 2005 speech at Gallipoli with Bill Crews' speech from 2006.

#42 ::: Per Chr. J. ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 08:31 AM:

This made me think of my maternal grandmother's older brother. According to the family story, his ship was sunk by a German submarine in the Atlantic. He was saved by another ship, but when that ship was sunk too, he was not so lucky. He was 18, and I think of how much I was just a kid at eighteen.

(Yes, Norway was not in the war, but after Imperial Germany started sinking neutral shipping going to Allied ports, we had our losses as well.)

Funnily, a lot of fortunes were made - and lost - during WWI in shipping in Norway. I believe that when it came to quick winnings it even rivalled stock market killings during the Internet boom.

#43 ::: Per Chr. J. ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 08:37 AM:

I've seen that there has been a certain amount of revisionist thought about British military strategy and leadership during WWI (with revisionism I here mean serious rethinking, made by real historians). I believe that for instance the Scottish historian Niall Fergusson has argued for a more positive view of the officer corps and even some of the more denigrated decisions made by British generals. I'm not a military historian, however, so I cannot really assess the validity of that rethinking.


#44 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 08:46 AM:

I'm not sure how messy most of my fellow Americans realize the Great War was unless they've seen The Grand Illusion or Paths of Glory on TCM. (Or the Xmas episode of Space Above and Beyond.) Yes, there was A Very Long Engagement not so long ago, and it glorified nothing, but I'm not sure how many people actually saw it. Speaking of which, remember the scene in that movie when a French officer is shooting his own men for not going out to get themselves killed by the Germans, That was Petain, the one who collaborated with the Nazis in the next War. After the movie came out, I asked my friend Elisabeth Vonarburg, whose father fought in the Great War, what had happened to the bastard after WW2. He was allowed to live alone, not in prison, because he was such an old man, but I get the sense that people never let him forget what he had done.

#45 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 08:49 AM:

I find it a lot easier to forgive the lack of interest in WW1 in American history classes when I remember that the USA suffered, in numerical terms, fewer war deaths during WW1 than Serbia.

And although I still find the portrayal of the French as "cheese eating surrender monkeys" in certain sectors enraging, the lack of interest in WW1 explains the mischaracterisation nicely.

#46 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 09:20 AM:

I heard a reference somewhere to "...the tactic of wearing down machine guns with young men's bodies."

And my Morris dancing friends are infuriated when some purist complains about women dancing Morris. It's true that Morris was traditionally danced exclusively by men between 19 and 25, but after the Great War there were no such men in England (at any rate, not enough to support the tradition), and so women began dancing it to keep it alive.

Learning that fact is what first led me, an American who never took history in school, to an understanding of how devastating WWI was in Europe. It was the stupidest war ever fought. It was started for stupid reasons, continued for stupid reasons, supported by stupidity, and fought in stupid ways both strategically and tactically. And the treaty to end it was stupider still, and led to one of the hugest disasters in human history.

NONE of which provides any excuse for not honoring the memory of those who served in it. Honoring them, and those who have served since, is in my opinion a holy obligation.

The parallels for today should be obvious.

#47 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 09:22 AM:

j h woodyatt et al,
I'm another one who sings Eric Bogle's songs on 11/11, but it's hard to get all the way through them, though ("And The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda", "No Man's Land"). I'm working on learning John McCutcheon's "Christmas in the Trenches" that marks a point of extraordinary humanity in the midst of a horrifying war.

It annoys me greatly that the US has "Veteran's Day" and everyone else has "Remembrance Day", making a lot of our memorial seem more "St. Crispin's Day" than "No Man's Land".

#48 ::: Cassie ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 09:38 AM:

I'm not sure school's the place to learn what we seem to want to learn about the war. It's easier to teach names and dates, especially when you only have a few days. During my European history class in high school, we spent a fair amount of time on the secret treaties that started the war, very little on the war itself, and another stretch on how it led to the second world war. The horror wasn't something that could be tested-- how do you tell if students are properly upset? Do you teach them a list of atrocities for every historical period and ask them to recite them without context?-- which perhaps was part of it, but the class's approach was more that wars were an interruption of the interesting parts. We learned about the causes of Big Important Wars, not the battles or death tolls, in part because they could be listed and in part because they could be learned from. Here's how not to run a bunch of colonies across the Atlantic. Here's how not to organize a continent full of history. Here's how not to make a peace treaty for the ages.

I don't think schools, as I have experienced them, are the right place to pick up the emotions. A friend told me some weeks ago that some thinker or other thought people learn nostalgia-- we see how our parents and friends react to something and learn the reactions. I have to agree; I've read a few books involving the trenches in the past couple years, and now WW1 flips the, "Boy, is this gonna suck," switch in my brain. A lot of horror doesn't do that.
Do we want schools teaching us what we should feel about history? Even with the Holocaust, I can't remember learning more than a few nasties, isolated from context-- they made soap, they made lampshades. It's not the teacher's job to instill respect and horror in students except as it's the job of someone in the community. The school year's too short to teach emotions on top of events.

The emotion people seem to lack in America (I cannot speak for other parts of the world) isn't something that can or perhaps should be learned in a classroom. It's something you pick up from everyone else. You learn to be horrified by certain names because everyone else goes quiet. You read, or you listen, you find out about trenches and machine guns on your own, where you aren't being watched to make sure you're paying attention to the right things. If you're me, you pick up on medical history and the Spanish flu and are really glad you haven't found a book set in 1918 that doesn't involve everyone else's nightmares, because it's the lost villages and the troopships arriving with half of them dead that gets to you. If I had been taught what to feel, would I have known that?

This is a long-winded way of saying that while it's shameful that people don't have the same attitude about this war, that war, any major event, I'm not sure it's right to blame the nebulous Schools for it. It's not their job to tell us what to feel. It's our job, 'our' meaning writers, artists, people who put individual faces on the names, to remind people that here is something to be horrified at. I learned most of what upsets me from fiction, not textbooks.

#49 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 09:48 AM:

In middle school (age 12 or 13) history class (in California), they showed us Night and Fog, and we read Anne Frank's diary. We were taught how to feel about the Holocaust, or rather, led deep enough into the experience that even the wiseass kids in the back row came out quiet and thoughtful.

In some sense, that was a loss of innocence for us, finding out that people could do such dreadful things. I think that we as a class were the better for the lesson.

Do I wish they'd done the same for WWI? I don't know - I think you only get that kind of impact once in a lifetime, and I think they chose the more important event to spend it on.

But I didn't understand WWI until I moved to Britain, and saw the war memorials in every town and village. I get it now, a bit, and I can't watch the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth without tears in my eyes.

#50 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 09:55 AM:

Xopher #46: "It was the stupidest war ever fought."

Perhaps it was, but it had some interesting results, including the beginning of the end of the colonial empires that had been largely created a couple of generations before (or even less -- Nigeria was created in 1904). The incompetence, waste of life, and the employment of colonial levies (with a consequent demystification of white supremacy), all had an impact on the colonial empires. It isn't an accident that Rastafarianism, for example, was founded by a veteran of the Great War.

#51 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 10:14 AM:

Hmm, Fragano, bad events often have some good consequences. That doesn't make them good events; it just means that flowers grow from shitheaps, or that you can salvage something positive from the worst situation, just because humans are like that (one of those rare things, something I like about humans).

I get to walk to work. This is because of 9/11 (my old workplace was destroyed, and my company decided to put the tech departments in Hoboken). That doesn't mean 9/11 wasn't a terrible thing. I'll take the walk to work, but would I rather be commuting to the World Trade Center? Sure, overall.

And the founding of Rastafarianism seems more like the Treaty of Versailles than the fall of colonialism to me. Rastafarians (at least according to a Trini whose article I read in the Village Voice years ago) are taught that homosexuals are not actually human, but are duppie spirits left over from Sodom and Gomorrah, and that killing them (us!) is a righteous act. A friend of mine who grew up in Jamaica tells me that if two women walked down a Jamaican beach holding hands in the morning, they would be hacked to death with machetes by sunset.

Don't talk to ME about the founding of Rastafarianism as if it were a good thing.

#52 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 10:23 AM:

meredith said (#28):
I really should remedy that. Can anyone recommend a book that would give me a good overview?

This time last year, I read a post by John M. Ford in which he recommended Hew Strachan's The First World War. So I ordered it from Amazon, and found out (no surprise, really), that he was right. It's relatively short (about 330 pages), well written, not confusing[*], and manages to cover a significant amount of the war outside Europe as well as the Western and Eastern Fronts -- and the relevant social and economic developments.

[*] The history of the Western Front between 1915 and 1917 can seem awfully repetitive and confusing if you don't already have some idea what and when battles like Ypres, Verdun, and the Somme were. This, at least, was one of the problems I had with John Keegan's WW1 history, for example.

#53 ::: Del Cotter ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 10:28 AM:

That's the old saying, "No one ever got fired for buying IBM", applied to warfare.

#54 ::: Del Cotter ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 10:30 AM:

Damn, I could have sworn nobody had said that. Sorry, J H Woodyat at #53.

#55 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:10 AM:

Does anyone else see the symmetry between Teresa's grief for a single death and the impact that the loss of a generation must have made?

A single one of us has passed away
Affecting every thread on Making Light.
We stagger at the impact. All we say
Is dimmer in his absence. He shone bright.
Imagine, if you can, a million lost
Or more: the good and better, bad and worse.
Each death its own immeasurable cost
Each grief deserving vivid, timeless verse.
We lost a friend. It's cost us all so much
In future joy and present pain alike.
That price is paid by all that death can touch
They all were missed the way that we miss Mike.
The mind cannot encompass so much grief:
They lost a forest, we mourn a single leaf.

#56 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:14 AM:

Xopher #51: First let me apologise. I had forgotten about the irrational homophobia of the Rastas (which is really a trait of the wider Jamaican culture, one that should be reprehended -- and I say this as a person who has been threatened with violence for speaking up for gay rights in Jamaica).

Let me add this: that Rastafarianism was part of a series of reactions to the Great War that involved colonised people responding to the catastrophe with a new understanding of the world. True, this involves roses growing from a dungheap, but some of those roses were noble.

#57 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:15 AM:

Abi #55: The leaf always means the forest.

#58 ::: Cassie ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:19 AM:

Abi #49, yeah. It's priorities. The only time I can remember something like that happening in class was in fourth grade, when our teacher brought in a print of Van Gogh's Starry Night, talked about it some (I can't remember anything of what she said), and played the Starry Night song. By the end of the music, I was one of three people in the room not crying. It was one of those things you can't plan for, just run with, and to this day I have no idea what got twenty-fivesome ten-year-olds going like that.
Anne Frank happened in eighth grade, a couple years into the age where most of the class got really excited about the hott teen lesbian action. And even then, it was presented more as literature than as history.

After grocery shopping, I think I've managed to shave down the earlier rambling to, "Yes, the schools should teach this, and things like it, more effectively. But they shouldn't have to, because the community as a whole should be teaching it too."

#59 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:20 AM:

Dave Luckett wrote: "I think that it is meet that we should do this, and I am glad that Bogle got it wrong. You may differ."

I didn't know this. I think I'd like to visit Australia to see this. As you probably know, the USA repurposed Armistice Day into "Veterans Day" in 1954 to honor all its veterans, not just the ones from the AEF. These days, Veterans Day tends to focus the national attention on that bleak wall in Washington, D.C. with the names etched into it, with the occasional nod to the veterans of WW2 and the however many other wars Americans can be bothered to remember.

I know some folks think And The Band Played Waltzing Mathilda is an antiwar song. I'm not one of them.

#60 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:31 AM:

I attended an honors seminar at my community college recently at which a student stood up and compared the current war in Iraq, the Vietnam War, and World War II, saying that in all three cases we were fighting "against communism".

The rest of us were so stunned that there were several seconds of complete silence.

So much for the state of public education in the U.S. (Incidentally, I was in college before I even HEARD of the Spanish-American War. Or the 1918 flu epidemic, but that's a different story.)

#61 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:35 AM:

I think my classes in high school must have covered World War I, if briefly, but I don't remember it. I learned about World War II from a book of war cartoons my father owned, about the Vietnam War from his brief experiences on the edges of it and from movies and from my high school AP History teacher who'd been in the thick of it. The Civil War we covered again and again and in minute detail, but all the wars of the 20th century we never quite said much about. I learned more about World War II from reading The Diary of a Young Girl in English class than I did from any history class. I got all I knew about World War I from a book on the history of the machine gun.

I used to own a book about stories of horses and dogs in war, and all the brave things they'd done. It was written for children, and published in England. I remember, when I read it the second or third time, being so puzzled because I couldn't figure out what war they were talking about. It didn't seem to be World War II, and it wasn't the Civil War, so what else was there? I had some dim idea that there must have been a World War I, to make the other a II, but couldn't imagine what it had been over or where it had occurred.

I'd never heard of November 11th as a day for remembering anything until I started reading Making Light.

I don't know what point I'm trying to make here. It just makes me angry, somehow, that there was all that mess and death and stupidity and no one ever told me enough about it that I could recognize it coming again, back when I was young. Maybe the schools aren't the place to teach that sort of thing, but I wish someone had told me earlier.

#62 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:57 AM:

Say, were the oil reserves of the Middle-East a factor in what led to the Great War, what with the new and voracious appetites acquired by the newly motorized means of transportation?

#63 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 12:00 PM:

Fade Manley #61:

It isn't what you're taught in class,
but the old monument in the town square;
the lesson's a short moment, it will pass,
but listen to the ones who once were there.
I learned of war at my kind mother's knee,
stories of death, tales that were all of woe;
I learned from that what it means to be free,
and how easily into the giant maw we go.
The names I read on school wall or church plaque,
with 'eternal memory' and 'honour' are the way
that I translate both 'battle' and 'attack'
into sharp images of frightening day.
Young men who once, for country and for king,
took arms and gave them their most precious thing.

#64 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 12:30 PM:

Serge asked:
Say, were the oil reserves of the Middle-East a factor in what led to the Great War, what with the new and voracious appetites acquired by the newly motorized means of transportation?

Mmm, no. The predominant "motorized means of transportation" on land were trains, which ran on coal. Most ships still ran on coal as well. Only the very newest ships ran on oil, and there was a certain reluctance to rely on that (despite the superiority of oil-fired turbines), since oil was mostly available only outside Europe, while coal was readily available at home. Most battlefield transport away from the rail heads was by horse.

#65 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 12:40 PM:

Xopher at 46: Not all historians believe that the Morris was exclusively danced by men even before WW1. There's a lot of evidence to the contrary, including that Will Kemp reported dancing alongside a female morris dancer during part of his historic dance from John O'Groats to Land's End, and that she kept up with him and danced better than most of the men. There are several morris historians who believe that the "only men dance the morris" was a Victorian canard perpetrated either by Cecil Sharp or by the villagers reporting to him. But I digress....

abi at 55 -- very nice, my compliments.

jh at 59 -- I'm one of those who thinks it's an anti-war song, but not an anti-troop song. Just as I think Goya's prints from Disastros de la Guerra* a collection of anti-war images. Both attempt to capture the concept (IMO) "This should never have happened, and it should never happen again."

There's an article in the current alumni magazine for UCBerkeley about John Yoo, who is one of the architects of current administration policy about torture, extraordinary rendition, and indeterminate detention without access to counsel. He sounds like neither a stupid nor an unkind man. And yet, I want to ask him one simple question: is this how you would want to be treated by the state? And I'd keep asking him until he gave an unqualified "yes" or "no" answer.

Since he's a lawyer, this might take weeks.

This administration's policies, IMO, move us back towards the horrors of WWI and earlier. Not quite the trenches -- instead the hidden camps. If the reforms of the Geneva Convention become inconvenient -- let's just forget them, okay?

(*pardon my spelling if it's wrong, as I don't have a copy to hand and Spanish is not my native tongue -- I could call it "The Horrors of War" instead, but I'll make my small effort to respect the artist's original language)

#66 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:05 PM:

Peter Erwin... Thanks for the response. I had been thinking of the increasing use of cars and trucks by civilians, but maybe those weren't enough to really factor in what politicians thought were concerns important to the survival of the state.

#67 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:12 PM:

You want to see their monument? It isn't here.
They'd feel oppressed by all the marble and the show
And just as likely slip away and have a beer,
And as for ceremonial, they didn't go
Too much on it, or blanco, or salutes. They had
A nasty job to do, one they despised (well, what
Did they expect? It was a war) and very glad
Were they to finish it, and go back home. Or not,
As often was the case. They were just blokes, like me
And you. And heroes too. Perhaps those larrikins
And clerks and farmers made the finest infantry
That ever marched, but not to look at. For their sins
They stood in line, dug holes, got wet and cold, or fried
In varied hells, were shocked and bored. As well, they'd be
Exhausted, lonely, frightened, hurt; and many died
A hopeless world away from home. Incredibly,
They'd volunteered. Of course, there's many who would say
They did it only out of simple ignorance
Or something worse (it wasn't for the princely pay,
And that's for sure). And then the same folk look askance
If told that they're unqualified to judge, until
They've sacrificed as much, have climbed that greater peak
Than anything they've known, or please God, ever will.
Angered, they'll insist they've every right to speak -
And so they have. No-one denies it, no-one here
Today. In fact, of all days this is one most fit
For exercising rights, for speaking free of fear.
You want to see their monument? It's there. That's it.

#68 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:12 PM:

Peter Erwin, #64: what does the phrase "sailed to victory on a sea of oil" mean to you?

Here's a hint: by 1914, the Royal Navy and the German high seas fleet were primarily powered by oil-fired steam turbines. And it was the great fleets-in-being that dominated strategic thinking. As Admiral Jellicoe put it, "I am the only man in England who can lose the war in an afternoon".

#69 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:21 PM:

The Musée de l'Armée exhibit on La Première Guerre mondiale goes into extraordinary detail about the French colonial empire. They have displays of colonial uniforms, paintings, propaganda posters, newspaper articles and cartoons showing the attitudes of the time. The colonies were a major reason why the war was a world war. They were also one of the reasons why there was a war at all; Germany was a very minor colonial power. England, France, and even Holland and Belgium had much greater colonies that they could economically control and exploit. Of course, there were other reasons, including the French loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. It was very interesting though, to see exhibits showing "this is what we did, and why we should not be proud of it, and what it led to."

#70 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:23 PM:

Sorry about the accents. They worked in the preview; really they did.

#71 ::: Russell Letson ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:42 PM:

re: Cassie #49: School, properly operated, is better suited to teaching data and analytical methods than feelings--though it can certainly be one of the places that can feed data into the feelings, via art, for example. I suspect that our understanding and evaluation of the data of history accumulate gradually. I've learned, slowly and across decades, as much about the meaning--the costs, the long-term effects, the cultural roots--of WW I from literature as from conventional historical study--particularly from books like Graves's Good-bye to All That. Or even the recognition that much of the context of, say, Agatha Christie's and Dorothy Sayers's mysteries are rooted in the demographic and economic consequences of the Great War. (Would there be a generation of maiden ladies like Miss Marple without the destruction of a generation of potential husbands for them? To say nothing of psychically-wounded Lord Peters.)

For that matter, even George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels offer a way of seeing the military-political culture that fed into the Great War--Capt. Blackadder is a cousin to Flashy.

#72 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:43 PM:

Re Oil & WWI, Not to Mention the Current Mess (#64 & 68)

Another name to look up is Gertrude Bell. By WWI a sense of oil's coming importance was definitely in place and I remember hearing that Germany's plan to build a railroad to the Middle East (bypassing the Suez) was a contributing factor to WWI.

#73 ::: Martyn Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 01:55 PM:

I see a lot of us being educated by non-educational means. May I recommend 'Gallipoli' by Peter Weir, if only for the last sequence (if only to prove that Mel Gibson wasn't always an arsehole) Dickie Attenborough's 'Oh what a lovely war', John Lennon's speech in Richard Lester's 'How I won the war', and - of course - the last episode of 'Blackadder' - something I doubt the BBC would have the balls to broadcast nowadays.

#74 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:34 PM:

One reason I asked about oil and the Great War is because of the minie-series Reilly: The Ace of Spies with Sam Neill and Leo McKern. I saw only a couple of episodes, and that was years ago, but I seem to remember that Oil and the Middle-East were of great importance.

#75 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:34 PM:

I have a newspaper clipping talking about a cousin-at-a-remove-or-so who was hit by several machine-gun bullets, and survived. My grandfather also was wounded while in France: he was between the lines, and a German came by and collected his small removable possessions (fortunately he was lying on his handgun).

#76 ::: Mez ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:43 PM:

CaseyL (#17) was speaking of the potential of The Great War as black comedy. One of the great pieces of news this year is the very-long-delayed release of a DVD of O!, What a Lovely War, probably the best attempt at doing that, and a film that everyone should see at least once.

A good short summary description is in the Review section at this link. Perhaps to catch some of the references, you might need more detailed knowledge of The War to End Wars than it seems many have, but I think the points mostly get through. I don't know how familiar the popular songs of the time are now, either. In 1969 the memories were a generation or two fresher than today.

Barbara Tuchman's 1984 book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam doesn't actually deal with WWI, but helps place that war in history, and in some aspects is more useful to read than her early classic The Guns of August, and a lot shorter.

In many ways the impact of World War I on the history since is arguably more than WWII (of course II flowed as a consequence of I as well). The blow to expectations of improvement & progress was a major influence on thought & society, for instance, along with the other disruptions mentioned by others. Another for instance, remember the Russian Revolution (towards its end, after three years of war) would have been unlikely to succeed without it.

#77 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:51 PM:

Dave Luckett #67: Marvellous!

#78 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:53 PM:

We shouldn't forget these lines, written by Georges Brassens and translated by Michael Flanders:

War has had it's apologians,
Ever since history began,
From the times of the Greeks and Trojans, when they sang of arms and the man,
But if you asked me to name the best, Sir,
I'd tell you the one I mean,
Head and shoulders above the rest, Sir, was the War of 14-18,
Head and shoulders above the rest, Sir, stands the War of 14-18.

There were the wars against all those Louis,
There were Caesar's wars in Gaul,
The was Britain's war in Suez, which wasn't a war at all,
There was the war of the Spanish Succession,
Many other wars in between,
But they none of them made an impression like the war of 14-18,
They didn't make the same impression as the war of 14-18.

The war of American Independence,
That was enjoyable, by and large,
Watching England's free descendants busy defeating German Jarge,
But the Boer War was a poor war, And I'm still inclined to lean,
Though Sir, it possibly isn't your war like the war of 14-18,
Though, it probably isn't your war, Sir, the war of 14-18.

There are certainly plenty of wars to choose from, you pick whichever one you please,
Like the one we've had all the news from liberating the Vietnamese,
Or those wars for God and country, be it Korean or Philippine,
Sir, if you'll pardon my effrontery, give me the war of 14-18,
If you'll pardon my effrontery, Sir, the war of 14-18,

Every war has it's own attraction from total war to border raid,
Call it rebellion, police action,
War of containment or crusade,
I don't underrate the late war we see so often on the screen,
But that wasn't the really great war like the war of 14-18,
No, the late war wasn't the great war like the war of 14-18.

No doubt Mars, among his chattels, has got some really splendid war,
Full of bigger and bloodier battles that we've ever seen before,
But until that time comes, Sir, when that greater war comes on the scene,
The one that I on the whole prefer, Sir, is the war of 14-18,
Yes, the one that I still prefer, Sir, is the war of 14-18.

#79 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 02:59 PM:

For one-volume histories, I'm partial to Martin Gilbert's The First World War, partly for having a genuinely global perspective (he takes all fronts and hinterlands seriously) and partly for a great eye for detail about typical experiences in crucial times and places. He also keeps a consistent chronological order, which I found very very helpful. He's also done a companion volume atlas, which is good too.

#80 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 03:19 PM:

Dave Luckett @67:

Wow. Well said, sir.

#81 ::: Jonquil ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 03:25 PM:

In Indiana, in 1976, I was taught World War I in high school for two months, as I recall, and was shocked to the core. Before that, my understanding had always been "we marched in and saved those silly Europeans", never the absolute devastation and horror that the war really was. We saw the documentary "Verdun" as well as several others. I don't remember why my American History course focused on WWI for so long, but I've always been grateful.

It's always a shock to visit an English church and see the Book of Remembrance, page after page of young men dead.

#82 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 04:06 PM:

Charlie Stross said (#68):
Peter Erwin, #64: what does the phrase "sailed to victory on a sea of oil" mean to you?

Nothing, I'm afraid; I'm not familiar with it.

Here's a hint: by 1914, the Royal Navy and the German high seas fleet were primarily powered by oil-fired steam turbines. And it was the great fleets-in-being that dominated strategic thinking. As Admiral Jellicoe put it, "I am the only man in England who can lose the war in an afternoon".

I'll disagree with you slightly, in two senses. First, my understanding is that only the very newest ships were oil-powered (e.g., the British Queen Elizabeth class of fast battleships); most of the ships in both navies were coal-powered, or used fuel oil only as a supplement. Certainly, the German cruisers which preoccupied the British during the first year of the war used coal, and I'm dubious that the German navy would have switched to complete reliance on oil when they lacked a secure, reliable supply.

Second, I'd argue that only Britain was really focused, for obvious historical reasons, on fleets-in-being above all other considerations; certainly Austria-Hungary and Russia were not, and Germany was far more focused on the twin threats of France and Russia. Jellicoe's statement reflected a peculiarly British point of view.

It's certainly true that oil was of (growing) strategic interest, but only secondarily, and the Middle East itself was largely irrelevant to the start of the war (though it didn't stay that way as the war went on).

#83 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 04:46 PM:

For oil and the Middle East and WW1, I'd recomment as a starting point the author Peter Hopkirk. His book on the undercover war arounf the oilfields has had a couple of titles: the UK edition was On Secret Service East of Constantinople.

Follows on from The Great Game, and while the Germans tried to encourage the Afghans to cause trouble, the Afghans didn;t want to be invaded again.

#84 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 05:04 PM:

As far as self-education on the Great War, one of the best experiences I ever had was the 1964 CBS Series World War One which was replayed some time back on PBS. As far as I can discover there were 26 half hour episodes (originally run in prime time), 20 of which are available on VHS. It is excellent, with each episode concentrating on a single topic, such as the music of the war. I hear that the BBC's The First World War from a couple of years ago may be as good or better, but I have never seen it myself.

While I have read the usual books on various topics applying to the war, I have not yet found a really adequate one volume overview -- Keegan's book is OK, but it has some obvious issues. Any suggestions?

One thing good from Keegan is his analysis of the near impossibility of coordinating various aspects of attacks on the Western Front once they began. The distances involved combined with the conditions and nature of defences meant, first, that intelligence about what the other side was doing was often worthless. It also meant that a commander back in the trenches could not see how an attack was progressing. Because truly portable radios did not exist, any officers up forward with the troops, that could actually see and affect what was going on, had no way to communicate that back to those who could have use that information to coordinate reserves or artillery. There was no shortage of stupid officers -- on both sides -- but even a smart officer could look pretty bad under those circumstances.

#85 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 05:06 PM:

Years ago, I decided to read all the scienc fiction in the Modesto Public Library. This was easy at the time, as they had only a few hundred. One of the books marked with the science fiction sticker was actually a serious work of political commentary written just after WW I, titled "Why Germany Will Do It Again". The sticker may have been a mistake, but I always thought it was actually some some librarian's sceptical comment, rendered ironic by later events.

#86 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 05:10 PM:

As a young teen, my strongest impressions of WWI came, I have to say, from Lucy Maud Montgomery. She published Rilla of Ingleside, one of the later of the Anne of Green Gables books, pretty soon after WWI ended. In it, several of Anne's children go off to war, and one doesn't come back. Not very explicit (it's told from the perspective of the youngest daughter who stays home), but it made me pretty certain that war was a bad thing and not glorious.

#87 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 05:31 PM:

My paternal grandparents were married in 1915, and bought a farm near Spanaway which, in 1916, was part of the condemnation of thousands of acres on south-eastern Pierce County Washington (including 1500 acres of the Nisqually Indian Reservation, which included residences and sheep and potato farms that had been started as part of The Puget Agricultural Company, a Hudson Bay Co. project). Pierce County turned around and donated the land to the Department of the Army to expand Camp Lewis into Fort Lewis.

They got twenty-five cents an acre, five dollars apiece for the buildings, and two weeks to vacate. The land they lost is now labeled "Argonne Forest" on the maps.

I grew up knowing men who had been gassed in the Argonne, Americans and a little Scot who'd moved to Canada right after the war and then married an American school teacher and moved to Yelm. My maternal grandmother's brothers were drafted and survived; my paternal grandparent's brothers were all exempt from the draft; my maternal grandfather was a spy in the lumber camps in Wisconsin, protecting us all from the red Germans, during the way, and then the Wobblies after.

What I know about WW1 I learned from stories from people, and a bit from movies like "Sergeant York;" what my kids know they learned from The History Channel, History Channel International, and Black Adder... both of them honor students, my son a history geek, my daughter with several AP examinations.

What Margaret Organ-Kean says at post#34 bears rereading: text books and the curriculum which goes with them are not neutral, and the sad fact is that teacher bias tends to exclude the stuff they found boring as students. There is little emphasis on teaching people what we need to know to make good political decissions (which is the assumed goal of public education in a democracy).

#88 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 05:31 PM:

_Rilla of Ingleside_ reliably leaves me in floods of tears. It's not a very good way to get history, because it was written so soon after that the author's expected audience knew all the names of the battles, but I have always found it emotionally wrenching.

Teresa, I'm sorry that this is a tough time for you. If it helps, I'm glad you're here--I had a terrible dream last night that there was a post on Making Light that you were in critical care, and one of the first things I asked Chad when I finally woke up was whether it was true.

#89 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 06:05 PM:

Serge mentioned A Very Long Engagement uptopic.

A very good movie, IMO, gritty and awful and moving and funny. A gorgeous Rashomon (sp?) -like whodunit, set in the trenches and the post-war years.

I had my parents watch; they wanted to watch it again, and my mother wanted to loan it to her rather-conservative sister.

#90 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 06:43 PM:

#56: It's OK, I understand, thank you, and I agree.

#91 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 07:16 PM:

One of my great-uncles was gassed in France and suffered from the consequences ever after. I wish I'd known him better, although I suspect he wouldn't have spoken much about it.

I read Paris 1919 back in May. It's the story of the peace conference there. It's not very flattering to too many of the participants.

#92 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 07:33 PM:

By the way, Stefan, I was amazed by Jodie Foster playing a French woman in A Very Long Engagement... I have no idea if she actually can speak French, but her accent was flawless.

#93 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 07:50 PM:

Serge @ 92: yes, she learned to speak it in Paris, on the set of whatever movie she became famous for as a child. Then she went to Yale and was a French major. Now, I understand, she dubs all her own performances into French.

/relurks. stupid grading.

#94 ::: Shannon ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 08:47 PM:

As for American education, I learned little about WWI except for the setup of it. Even from that little, without knowing the devestating casualities, I realized it was incredibly stupid. I remember thinking, "The whole world was at war for this?" I always assumed that my education was rather poor in that area because my high school European history teacher was apathetic and about to retire and as a result, barely left any time to discuss anything post-1900. I wouldn't blame it on the general system though. We had to take European history and I suspect the other teachers did a much more comprehensive job of it.

As for WWII, we did Holocaust units in both 6th (12 years old) and 8th grade (14 years old), crossing over between history and literature classes. Even though I may not have totally understood what the troops went through, I even now hold a very viseral understanding of the Holocaust because of those units. As someone said earlier, they brought about a loss of innocence. During both years, I was fascinated by the era, particularly the contrast between horror/evil and bravery. We read Anne Frank's diary, Number the Stars (excellent young adult book), and a number of similar novels. I even wrote a short story from the perspective of a young girl in a concentration camp. The individual stories burned themselves into my mind, and I think that they would have for WWI as well if we were exposed to them.

#95 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 10:10 PM:

Both of my grandfathers were in WWI (maternal in France, paternal on the Russian side of the Eastern Front), and Armistice Day was a pretty big day in our household. We read Grass and In Flanders Field every year.

We have John's medals and the letters he sent home from camp and battlefield (gramma saved them). His two brothers also made it through the war more-or-less physically unscathed (Roger lost an eye), and as psychically intact as you can expect after a war like that. All we have from Semen is the few stories he told to his sons before he died. His three brothers all died. The town Nanna Ana grew up in disappeared after the war.

I once made a comment in a graduate writing course 20 years ago that conditions in the trenches of WWI had to have been comparable to (if not worse than) conditions on the ground in Vietnam. You would have though that I had espoused Nazi-ism, based on the reactions of most of my classmates. The professor, on the other hand, agreed with me, as did the only other classmate who had a family member involved in WWI (his grandfather was finally beginning to tell his stories, 75 years later).

#96 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 10:40 PM:

I don't think it's that hard to teach the horrors of the Holocaust. There is actual documentary evidence, and most of it you can give to children pretty straight. (Provided the children aren't primary school children.)

Most people don't need to be told what to think when they see bulldozers shovelling people into mass graves, or when they see piles of shoes reaching to the ceiling.

I think it is much the same with the First World War. It might not be so visceral, but it's still possible.

#97 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:34 PM:

I believe that the remark about losing the war in an afternoon was made by Churchill about Admiral Jellicoe, in defence of the latter's cautious behaviour at the Battle of Jutland.

If it did originate with Fisher, it would be typical of the man, though. No shrinking violet, Jackie Fisher.

#98 ::: Luthe ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2006, 11:34 PM:


The ruined church howls,
With the eerie wail of falling shells.
The foundations shake,
As a distant explosion drowns out the screams and groans of the living.
Only the dead are silent,
As if in contemplation of this sacred space.
I walk through this abattoir carrying my charge,
A Valkyrie bathed in blood.
I am splashed with the intermingled gore of dead and living,
As I deliver my burden to the table.
Once a priest's holy altar,
It is now a butcher's board.
The lambs go to the slaughter upon it,
Their blood the sacrifice that consecrates this hellish place.

#99 ::: adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 01:41 AM:

As she often does, Lynn Johnson focused For Better or For Worse on Remembrance Day for her Sunday strip. This link will eventually go bad:

#100 ::: DaveL ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 09:30 AM:

A couple of variously scattered comments on previous posts here.

The idea that the strategies of the generals in WW1 were "conservative" is overstated, to say the least. They were in fact trying to adapt to three technological advances that there had only been glimmers of in previous wars (chiefly the US Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War). First was the machine gun (this is the one everyone remembers). Second was in-depth entrenchment with barbed wire, multi-level deep trenching, and so on. Third was reasonably accurate long-range artillery.

Remember from your reading that the war was originally supposed to be a war of maneuver. Both the Germans and the French expected stunning offensive advances, and the Germans almost succeeded in theirs. (Tuchman's "Guns of August" is good on this topic, as is Keegan's "World War One"). Fundamentally, (according to Keegan) what happened is that the German army just got too tired: the plans called for continuous advances beyond normal human endurance.

So, the first thing that happened when this failed was a race to find a breakthough point and failing that, to put down entrenchments. Then came experiments on how to break through the entrenchments. The failure of the generals was the failure of their attempts to break through, using many different tactics.

They first tried the over-the-top attack most of us learned about in History class. It failed due to barbed wire and the machine gun. So, they tried to knock out the barbed wire and the machine guns with artillery, and kill all the defenders. The idea was that the artillery would lead the troops by a little bit, enabling an advance without opposition. This actually sort of worked, sometimes. The problem was the artillery wasn't properly synchronized with the advancing troops (no walkie-talkies existed), so it either left them behind or didn't advance fast enough. Even when they broke through, the reinforcements couldn't come up fast enough to make a difference. Eventually, the defensive works became more sophisticated, so the emplacements couldn't be knocked out by artillery fire, and the defenders just popped up and resumed the defense. The Germans tried poison gas. The Allies tried tanks. And so on. There's a lot more (this was just a short precis), such as how multiple trench lines developed, how dug-in defense worked, and so on, literally ad nauseum.

While it is utterly, depressingly true that the ultimate result of all these efforts was millions of dead soldiers, the idea that they just kept trying the same thing over and over again is not. What happened is that they really didn't have the tools to do what they wanted to do (break through the trench lines), but it took them a long time, a lot of different tactics tried (and failed), before they realized it. Note, after all, that the generals took home lessons, and technology advanced, and WW2 was fought with very different tactics and technology.

As another datapoint (anecdota-point?) on History as she is taught, my daughters both had WW1 and WW2 covered in their classes. My off-the-cuff impression is that there are a few "highlight" events in History that get huge coverage (the Revolution, the Civil War, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement) and rest have to be stuck in around the edges.

As for standardized tests, there is no state requirement for one in History (we're talking Massachusetts here). The SAT 1 doesn't have a History component. US History and World History are optional SAT 2 tests, and (anecdotally) few college-bound kids of my acquaintance seem to take them.

#101 ::: Eric ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 09:32 AM:

Wilfred Owen:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

#102 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 11:03 AM:

Just to support what DaveL said in #100.

There was continuous technical and tactical innovation during the war - just as much as if not more as in the second war. The hard thing wasn't taking a trench, or even breaking through the line entirely. It was exploiting the breakthrough the next day. The "winners" of any battle would have to pour men on foot through the gap in the lines and out into enemy territory, while the defenders could freely move men up along roads and railways that mainly ran parallel to the lines, and pinch out the attackers into an enclave. It happened again and again on the more mobile Eastern Front, and in the West the Germans *won* the big pushes of early 1918 which did them more harm than losing would have.

By the end of 1916 there were half a dozen or more text-book ways of taking trench lines. They all worked. You could use mines or tanks or gas or planes or rolling barrage or stormtroopers. Or the British equivalent to stormtroopers, which were Australians.

That last isn't meant as a joke. The most effective troops in the war (in any army) were the ANZACs, Canadians, and South Africans (even allowing for a little bit of Light Horseshit in the mythology) The reason they were disproportionately pushed into the front line wasn't that unimaginative British generals wanted to use them as cannon-fodder, it was that they were more likely to win than most other units were. Some units fought in battle after battle, while others lost hardly a man from one year's end to the other. British units with a history of taking (or standing) ground were also over-used. Which is why we hear so much about the Artist's Rifles and the Welsh Fusiliers. They really did have a hell of a war, and not just in Mametz Wood.

But once through what next? The anachronistic obsession (on both sides) with keeping the cavalry in being wasn't just the irrational sentiment of a generation of officers who had learned their business in small colonial wars. It was a desperate need to find some way to exploit a temporary advantage.

Which was why they tried Gallipoli, and why they tried to get Italy to invade Austria over the Alps, and why both sides kept on coming back to the Ypres Salient. It was the strategic key to the channel ports, which offered the British (with their overwhelming naval superiority) a possible route to Germany that went round the front, not through it.

#103 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 11:10 AM:

Here in Britain, the Great War has been getting larger in our collective cultural consciousness during my adult lifetime.

Part of it is the perspective of the long view. When I was at primary school the first war was two or three times further back in the past than the second. Now it is only about third further away. As events recede into the past there is a feeling of drawing back in the landscape, smaller objects fade into the background, larger ones stand out more, like mountains looming beyond the hills.

Perhaps with further perspective the two World Wars, the Russian revolution and civil war, the Spanish civil war, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and China, the colonial liberation wars, and the Chinese Revolution will all come to merge into one great mountain range of mutual slaughter in the first half of the Twentieth Century. But it was the First World War that started it. Here in northern Europe the Great War was the biggest event of our history since the Reformation.

1914 was When It Changed.

Since then no-one can pretend to believe in the Whig version of history, or in uncontaminated Progress, or that somehow we white Europeans and Euro-Americans are morally better or culturally more advanced or more rational or more civilized or in any way nicer than anyone else. We slaughtered each other, then we raised up a new generation of sons, then we did it again.

The Great War lies behind not only Dadaism and Futurism and Nazism but also the supposed Post-modernist rejection of all those isms. It is perhaps the main proximate cause of the triumph of western European secularism. The reason you Americans mostly go to church and we mostly don't. Maybe moral relativism won the war. Since 1914 we have known that, at least sometimes, we are the bad guys.

#104 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 12:32 PM:

The problem with Nov. 11 in the US is that we've made it Veterans' Day rather than Remembrance Day or Armistice Day. It is a day that focuses on the living veterans, rather than the memory of WWI. So it gets reinvented with each new war and set of veterans, while the original occasion for remembrance is forgotten.

The same with Memorial Day - it is a day to remember soldiers who died, and the original connection to Union Civil War dead is forgotten.

Part of the decreased remembrance of WWI in the US may be the fact that it touched the US relatively lightly - it wasn't fought on our land, and unlike Canada and Australia, which were involved throughout the conflict, the US didn't enter the war until relatively close to the end, and didn't have soldiers engaging in the many years of stalemated trench warfare.

#105 ::: nona ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 12:40 PM:

I didn't really learn WWI until eleventh grade, when we spent the year on a mandatory Modern World history class that covered the whole globe from Columbus to Vietnam. That meant there wasn't a lot of time for any one thing. The impression I got was that WWI was like a bar brawl fought with whole countries, that starts when someone drinks out of someone else's glass and ends with the friends of both the initial fighters beating each other bloody just because they're drunk and belligerent. We also learned about the Christmas Truce, for some reason. And that was at a high school in the suburbs of DC, with excellent history teachers-- I took an Ancient & Medieval class my senior year that basically covered everything from the dawn of time up to Columbus, and did well on the World History SAT II.

I'm Jewish, so I learned most of the WWII history that stuck with me in Hebrew school, from age 11-13 or so. That meant of course, a lot of Holocaust history: they took us to the Holocaust Museum, played us Schindler's List, gave us Anne Frank's diary to read. There's a lot of Holocaust and WWII fiction aimed at that age group, much of it about Jews in hiding and various resistance efforts. Very little of it was about the camps, but we learned that other ways.

I found out a few years ago that one of my great-uncles has a boxful of medals from his service in WWII, including a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He stormed a German machine-gunner's nest single-handedly, but he never talked about it afterwards; I only know because my mother found his letters of commendation.

#106 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 01:21 PM:

Ken Brown said (#103):
The Great War lies behind not only Dadaism and Futurism and Nazism but also the supposed Post-modernist rejection of all those isms. It is perhaps the main proximate cause of the triumph of western European secularism. The reason you Americans mostly go to church and we mostly don't. Maybe moral relativism won the war. Since 1914 we have known that, at least sometimes, we are the bad guys.

Minor art-historical nitpicking: it's certainly true that Dadaism -- and Surrealism -- came out of World War One, but Futurism preceded it. Most of the Futurists were really excited by the prospect of the War; two of the most prominent (Boccioni and Sant'Elia) were killed fighting in it. Afterwards, several of the Futurists embraced Fascism. And "postmodernism" is really a phenomenon of the 1970s and 80s; much of we think of as "modern architecture", for example, really developed after WW1.

#107 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 01:34 PM:

Catherine in #13:
"It most definitely _is_ taught that way in Canada. I would bet that it is in Australia and New Zealand, also."

Used to be that way in South Africa (1970s high school) as well - industrialized war and the tragedy of Versailles. Interestingly not much on WWII, probably because the architects of apartheid (and, not coincidentally, the Official History Syllabus) were mostly enthusiastic Nazi-supporters. 11/11 was then marked with a minute's silence at noon, though I doubt it still is, as a different history has become important.

#108 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 01:53 PM:

I saw Night and Fog in AP English class. I'd also seen bits of Triumph of the Will in German class. My opinion? All American HS students should be required to watch TOTW immediately followed by NAF as a graduation requirement; this would make a clear and visceral connection between aggressively nationalistic sentiment and its consequences.

My AP English class, which normally burst into heated discussion at the end of any film, sat in stunned silence after NAF. Our teacher didn't say anything; he started to, but then decided it was better to let us think about it until we were ready to talk.

We never were. One by one, we silently walked out.

#109 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 02:05 PM:

For those with digital cable, the Military Channel is running a First World War series that I believe is the same one that Claude Muncey references in #84. I learned a great deal from watching it, and recommend it.

I don't think any of my high school history classes got much past the civil war, but college classes were much better. I read Robert Graves's autobiography "Goodbye to All That" in a "Europe in the Age of Total War" history class, and found it very educational. To me, Graves has enough of a modern mind to be able to explain to contemporary audiences how people thought shortly after the turn of that century.

#110 ::: Zeynep ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 02:19 PM:

What strikes me anew here is how many people have left comments along the lines of "My grand uncle/grandfather/neighbor's grandfather's father was there/won a medal/got gassed and almost never spoke of it afterwards." (Emphasis mine, or "started talking about it, finally, 75 years later.)

That much evidence, and yet people will still tell that lie Eric quoted in #101: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. No, if you ask the ones who almost did, apparently not.

#111 ::: cap ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 02:25 PM:

When I was in ninth grade I took a class called Art and War. Although the original intention was to go from ancient civilations' use of art in times of war up to the present, our teacher ended up spending the latter half of the course on World War 1. It was my first true exposure to that conflict, and time period, and my means of exposure was not through reading history books, but through slides of paintings, drawings and etchings by war artists. Works by Kathe Kollwitz, and especially Otto Dix, made such an impression on me that I asked my teacher, at the end of the course, for more - more information, yes, but more of that feeling I had when I studied Dix's and Kollwitz's paintings. She recommended All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.

As I've skimmed these comments here, I haven't seen anyone mention this book. To say that it's one of my favorites is putting it lightly, so of course I wonder: has anyone else read it?

#112 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 03:15 PM:

#27, Anne -- some Americans do know about the poppies, I was able to buy one from a veteran at the Columbus Veterans Day Parade last week. (But, my family on my mother's side has always had someone in the service.)

What disturbed me was that I was the only civilian watching the parade who saluted the flag when the color guard approached. I guess that's not being taught in schools any more...

#113 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 03:48 PM:

Cap @ 111, I've read it, but it was a long time ago. Evidently it didn't make as much an impression on me as other books have, although I know the subject matter. The film was judged here to be the first anti-war movie in the sound era.

Lori @ 112, my mother has memories of buying poppies during the interwar period in the US. She thinks they were sold by the VFW as a means of supporting vets, since there was no such thing as a Veterans Administration then.

#114 ::: Josh ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 03:49 PM:

Just to follow up on what DaveL and Ken Brown have said... This:

Capt. Blackadder: Would this brilliant plan involve us climbing over the top of our trenches and walking slowly toward the enemy?

is simply incomplete. There was definitely some of that throughout the war, but even on the first day of the Somme, the canonical example, the British troops tried a number of different tactics, not all of which involved walking slowly across no-man's-land. Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson's The Somme goes into great detail on this issue (while not letting Haig get off scot-free).

#115 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 04:47 PM:

I think the VFW and the American Legion still sell poppies. I know I've seen them in the last five years. (My train station has a war memorial. With a flag, lit. And a sign saying 'Blue Star Highway'. Also a WW2 display inside, with stories, ribbons, and model aircraft.)

#116 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 06:45 PM:

#82 - Wellll.... so England ran their best ships on oil, fought for oil, and didn't lose. Possibly they were right in thinking oil was vital.

As a pause from sorrow, I recommend _Three Men on the Bummel_, the knocking-round-Germany sequel to _Three Men on a Boat_, for an accidental view of how much more insulated from change the German aristocracy was than the English. Industrial barons in the UK must have gotten some imagination into the upper reaches of power.

#117 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 08:49 PM:

You can always buy poppies at the entrance to my grocery store on 11/11. They're sold by vets.

#118 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 08:58 PM:

I believe that Ken Brown and DaveL are far too kind to the generals of the Great War, particularly Haig. To discuss it in any sort of detail would take - has taken - many books. I remain convinced that Haig and his immediate subordinates were some of the worst generals in history, not because they were completely incompetent - they could never have reached the heights they did had they been so - but because they were competent only at certain aspects of their task while remaining catastrophically incapable of performing others. The results were only that their failures, while just as inevitable, were on an incomparably vaster scale.

#119 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 09:29 PM:

Cap at 111 -- yes. Though many years ago.

I can still recite "In Flanders Fields" from memory; I learned it when I was, oh, nine. It was not uncommon then to see people wearing poppies on 11/11, and many people still called it Armistice Day.

#120 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 09:41 PM:

Cap at #111 -- yes.

My copy is one I bought in a secondhand bookshop. It dates to 1929, the year the English translation was first published. It is the *second* reprinting of Sepetember 1929, and the twentieth reprinting since the first print run, in March. The last line of the list of reprints is "Completing 300,000". In hardback.

#121 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 09:47 PM:

My dad used to buy a poppy every year at church on a Sunday near Armisice Day. He probably still does; they replace, every year, last years on the rearview mirror of his car. When I am attending a church, and they are sold, I too do this.

#122 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 11:00 PM:

Dave L #12: was Bogle wrong when he wrote? Australia had sent forces to at least two major wars since then, and probably was not thinking as much that contemporary leadership was just as mad as leadership in WWI. Perhaps he was newly-enough arrived not to see everything that was going on; the ANZAC monuments in every community are visible but static (however admirable it is that the largest and ugliest of them is in clear view of parliament, as a permanent reminder). Now the U.S. has made such an ass of itself that much of rest of the world is beginning to see how stupid apparently-respectable leadership can be.

Anne #27: 11/11 might have gained greater significance if the U.S. hadn't had its own slaughter, and established a memorial to it, 50 years before the Armistice. It's true the U.S. doesn't take a month to build up to the date; the Civil War did not wipe out villages the way WWI did, so the day had another reason not to acquire the shock and awe that it did around the Commonwealth.

I'm fascinated by the number of comments about finding poppies in the U.S.; I'd never seen the custom until being in the U.K. in October 1997. Maybe it's more common outside the northeast?

I see a number of comments edging around something that ought to be stated plainly: teaching the truth about the stupidity of WWI would be considered subversive in large parts of the U.S. The results are plain (the third of the country that still believes in Iraqi WMD) and self-perpetuating.

#123 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 13, 2006, 11:21 PM:

The words of Eric Bogle that were quoted included these:

"I see the old men all tired sick and sore
Those weary old soldiers of an old forgotten war
And the young people ask me what are they marching for
Some days I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Mathilda
While the old men still answer the call
And year after year their numbers grow fewer
Someday no one will march there at all."

Those words are wrong in plain fact. Bogle was wrong. Flat, dead, undeniably wrong. And bloody gratuitously offensive to boot. The 'young people' he insulted are not as ignorant as he thinks - or possibly, not as much as he'd like them to be - and they prove it again every year.

Yes, old soldiers do die. They get fewer and fewer. But what they did and what they were will remain so long as we are a nation. And so long as we are, there will be a march, and people like Bogle can write whatever they like about it, no matter how insulting, churlish, graceless and untrue their words might be. That's freedom, isn't it?

#125 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2006, 01:39 AM:

The proposition that Bogle was writing as a character in a narrative is falsified by the passive voice of the last four lines, and the fact that the "old men" are referred to in the third person in the second. The singer clearly does not identify with them; in fact he observes them with a stark lack of charity. Though the lyric was a narrative earlier, and in the first person, this is plainly Bogle's own voice. I'm glad to see that he later changed his tune.

But whether it was he or his character that was wrong is somewhat irrelevant, anyway. The words were wrong, and if Bogle did not mean them to be taken as authoritative, he was wrong to write them in the persona of a WW1 digger. They were also insulting - not to me, though I am offended by them - but to the present generation and those to come. "The young people" are not so ignorant, nor so ungrateful.

#126 ::: cd ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2006, 01:45 AM:

And a piece written about what it can be like to live somewhere where there're no memorials of the Armistice/Veteran's Day type.

So every year when I see the memorials coming up over the great electronic cobweb I feel a bit like a student of the alien finding an aspect of another civilization which obviously means a lot to at least some people but which carry little emotional significance to myself. Maybe that's what you get in the 193rd year of armed peace.
#127 ::: Bez ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2006, 03:13 AM:

I respectfully disagree, Dave. Possibly part of the confusion is that the lyrics quoted are "as j h sings them".

The original:
"And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glories
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore.
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question."

On a side note- "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" was released in 1972. Part of the original context was the refusal of the RSL to allow Vietnam veterans to march in Anzac Day parades.

#128 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2006, 07:12 AM:

It's worth remembering that the two World Wars grabbed consecutive generations. If the pattern had held, WW3 would have been in the late Sixties.

Think about it.

#129 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2006, 08:32 AM:

Just an aside about the oil question.

In 1901 a British businessman bought oil concessions in the Abadan area on the Iranian side of the Shatt-al-Arab

Between 1907 and 1909 the Burmah Oil company, acting as a front for the British government, bought the drilling rights with money secretly given to it by the government, and set up the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now known as BP)

In 1913 the Churchill suggested that the government should buy a controlling interest in the company, in order to secure oil supplies for the Royal Navy. This was completed in June 1914.

Iraq, then ruled by Turkey (and usually called Mesopotamia in English) was just across the river from Abadan. The Brits already had large business interests in Basra, and the Shatt-al-Arab ws the key to exporting oil from Iran. As soon as the war started Britain sent troops to defend Abadan, part of supposedly independent and neutral Persia.

In November 1914 British troops landed at Faw near Basra and started the Mesopotamian campaign that led in the end to the estbalishment of a supposedly independent Iraq under British occupation.

How things change.

I personally don't belive that our current cock-up in Iraq was ever a war for oil. I suspect the real reasons we started it are a lot less sophisticated than that. But I can't blame anyone for thinking that the British would invade Iraq for oil - we already did it three time in living memory.

#130 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2006, 10:27 AM:

Only one thing to say: how refreshing it is to be disagreed with (and respect is not required, but still more appreciated) rather than to be called a simpleton or worse.

I return the respect, sir, but I remain of my own mind.

#131 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2006, 11:05 AM:

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#132 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2006, 06:43 PM:

Dave Luckett: Based on what I know of his whole anti-war oeuvre, rather than his single verse of a signle song, I'd like to respectfully offer that Eric Bogle wasn't underestimating the capacity of younger generations to remember or learn; I think he was trying to make it certain that they would.

You can disagree with his phrasing, certainly, and I do Not find that verse of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" one of his strongest moments of writing, but I think you're reading the wrong motivations into it, and giving it a less charitable spin than Bogle meant, either to the veterans or the younger generation.

Example: in the song, the younger generation ask what it's all about, and thus learn; just as some people above, in this very thread, have declared that they didn't learn WWI -- or didn't learn the important parts of it -- in school, it was almost passed over, less important than World War II. But, those same people, our fellow posters in this thread, did ask, like the young people in the song, and did learn. And they're here now talking about it.

I also think your final remark was an uncharitable view of your fellow posters, but you may have some cause for that ill feeling that I do not know; though i am a fellow poster, and I have disagreed with you in the past, and I do not recall intentionally disrespecting you (Though i may be wrong, in that i tend to be acerbic, or read as acerbic, withut meaning to be. I've been warned often I have "an edge".)


I'm another one who didn't get a real grounding in World War I in high school, or in school at all. But in my case, I can explain it directly: My first History teacher in high school was a woman who sent a fair amount of the late 40s and early 50s working as a nurse or something like in Japan, and saw radiation burns and the like firsthand. We covered World War I as facts (the course covered from the turn of the 20th century to the end of World War II, with a lot of emphasis on Russia, and some damning things to say about McCarthyism even though we didn't really get that far officially.) But the thing she drilled home to us in vivid detail, gave us an idea of the emotional shock, was Hiroshima. I remember one class I actually had to leave the room to recover myself. So did she, in fact; she didn't stay inside when she showed us film clips.

My second history teacher had been a child when the details of the holocaust came out to the public. That, more than the war itself, or the nuclear bomb, or even the follow-up McCarthyism or the rise and atrocities of Stalin, was his formative experience, and so that was his emphasis, thoguh he covered the rest as well (He dealt with the Unifications of Germany and Italy respectively, up to the start of the 20th century, then jumped to WWII, and covered from there to the end of the Korean War. Odd way for the curriculum to be set up, to go back and forth so, but...). We heard a lot about anti-Semitism before the war, about the Jewish refugees being turned back, and about our own atrocities in how we treated the Japanese in our own camps, and the later slaughter mostly by starvation in Ukraine, but it all centred around the Holocaust. I didn't help by doing my focused paper on the non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

My teachers taught their curriculum with the emotional emphasis, deliberately or unconsciously, on their scarifying experiences. I can't argue with that, I can't say they should have shown me better how World War I was as bad or worse.

#133 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2006, 09:50 PM:

I remain of my own mind about that particular lyric, Lenora Rose. My remarks are related only to that, and not to Bogle's entire oeuvre, of which I have insufficient knowledge. I actively avoid Bogle, mainly because of that one song.

As I remarked, I do not expect any particular respect in the sense of obsequious or overly-courtly address, and add that I do expect disagreement. But you are not in any way guilty of personal or general insult, which is all I object to. I would hope that I am not guilty of it, either.

#134 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2006, 10:51 PM:

Dave: would none of the diggers have wondered whether the parade was to mourn the dead -- or to glorify them and thus perpetuate Owen's "old Lie"? Such misuse is endemic in the U.S. (cf the hysterical cries of "Support the troops!" while pictures of the returning coffins are banned); the little I've read of Australia suggests that it might have been a legitimate question 34 years ago. Are you certain that the aspects you seen it today were present then?

#135 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2006, 11:45 PM:

CHip: I was there thirty-four years ago. More than I am today, I am ashamed to say. It was the same then. I can't ever recall jingoism about it, an aggressive nationalism.

In the late sixties, I was at an Anzac Day ceremony in Broome. They had a wonderful bugler, a man who made the Last Post sound like the mourning of angels. "Good, isn't he?" asked the bloke next to me, after we'd both wiped away tears. I nodded. "Well, he should be. He was Rommel's own bugler, you know."

I can't confirm that. He was definitely German, of the right age, and the long-billed cap he wore looked like Afrika Korps to me. Could be. Officially, I suppose he shouldn't have been at the parade, him being an ex-enemy combatant and all, and I agree that if he'd been Japanese, or SS, matters might have been different. But there he was.

So no, I don't think it was different then.

#136 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2006, 12:09 PM:

I was probably a little more aware of World War I than my classmates because when we did Teacher For A Day in 8th grade (American history year for junior high) WWI just happened to be where we'd gotten to in the textbook. The book (a leftover from late 50s/early 60s) had all sorts of tactical diagrams of the Somme, Ypres and all that, with arrows, labels, and little explosion signs; what I remember walking away with was a sense of how much the territory kept oscillating between the two sides while everyone died. What I didn't get, though, was how that was different from other wars (because I hadn't studied them yet), and what the death tolls actually meant in terms of who did or didn't come back.

The old palais du basketball at the University of Kentucky was built partially as a war memorial, and included the name of every Lexington soldier who'd died in both World Wars, and maybe in some of the others, all on plaques spiralling up the concourse and entrance ramps. I remember noticing that there seemed to be a fair amount of names, but it never really hit home until years after I'd left, when I was taking a seminar on 20th-c British society.

#137 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2006, 12:26 PM:

#136 ::: joann mused:
What I didn't get, though, was how that was different from other wars (because I hadn't studied them yet), and what the death tolls actually meant in terms of who did or didn't come back.

We had a matched pair of children's books about WWI and WWII, and the haunting but excellent graphic charts they used to compare losses still stick with me - bar graphs composed of one 'man' glyph per million? people lost per country.

Does anybody recall a similar pair of books? I can (mostly) picture the covers, but "army pictures on a book in a thin hardback format" doesn't exactly provide any sort of defining characteristic.

#138 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2006, 12:03 AM:

Dave: I didn't think I'd persuade you, so fair's fair. And now I reread myself, that was definitely me in most formal/pompous mode; I guess that's what I get for posting while writing formal essays.

#139 ::: OG ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2006, 07:24 PM:

Several years ago, I stumbled across an English translation of a pre-Great War German report on the Russo-Japanese War. My best memory of it was that the German analysts predicted the tactics of trench warfare, and their outcome, quite accurately. I wish I still had access to that university library.

xeger @ 137:

I don't recall the children's books, but IIRC my World Book Encyclopedia had similar bar graphs.

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