1918 – 2018: Remembering the Great War

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Written by: Christopher Plein, Ph.D. West Virginia University and MLFN Caregiving Team

A little over a month ago, on Monday, November 12 to be precise, I walked into my university classroom to teach my morning seminar. While most state and federal offices were closed that day, the University was open.  In honor of Veteran’s Day, or more traditionally, Armistice Day, I wore an artificial red poppy in the lapel of my jacket.  While perhaps a more familiar symbol in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, it is also a sign of remembrance here in the United States. Indeed, I got mine from a table staffed by American Legion Auxiliary volunteers at a big box store near a busy interstate exchange in otherwise rural Southwest Virginia.

Some of my students asked about the poppy.  I explained its purpose and noted the special significance of the poppy this year.  November 11, 2018 marked the centenary of the end of the First World War, or the Great War as my late grandmother and so many of her generation referred to it. The flower was first used to honor those who had died in the war.   A 100 years ago, many thought that the conflict would be “the War to end all Wars.” Alas, as history would show, this has not be the case.

I realized that like so many of us living in the 21stcentury, my students have little historical awareness of the First World War and its transformative effect on the United States.  The war accelerated the nation’s transition to a more industrialized economy. Agricultural production boomed even while more people moved to the cities.  Wartime demands expanded the federal government’s role in economic and social policy. The war touched the lives of many.  According to the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, an estimated 4.7 million Americans were mobilized for the war, with approximately 340,000 dead or wounded.

Clearly, I was presented with a “teaching moment.”  Because my course was on healthcare systems, I was able to discuss how World War I helped to shape modern healthcare delivery in the United States.  For example, wartime led to new innovations in medical treatment and practice.  For example, Beth Linker’s “The Great War and Modern Health Care” in the New England Journal of Medicine (2016) provides a helpful overview of the war’s revolutionary influence on orthopedic and rehabilitative care.

I then pivoted to a broader discussion of the war and its legacy. The war signaled the entry of the United States as a major player on the world stage. Some two decades later this would be fully manifested through the United States’ dominant role in the Second World War and post-war international affairs that have followed over the decades.

In short, Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, and Sailors on duty across the globe today, and the missions to which they are dedicated, are an echo of momentous decisions made by the United States to enter the allied cause in 1917.

As I usually do, I suggested a few books to my students.  Along with a few others, I describe them below.   All are readily available online and from major bookstores, as well as many libraries.

For those wanting to know about the war itself, John Keegan’s The First World War (Knopf, 1998) is probably the most informative single source of the causes, experiences, and aftermath of the war.

Like most wars, the path to conflict was one of accidents and miscalculation, compounded by a lack of statesmanship and an unfortunate abundance of political calculation. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (Macmillan, 1962) is the classic study of the missteps that resulted in global conflict.  It is said that President Kennedy drew lessons from her cautionary analysis when dealing with the Cuban missile crisis.

In many ways, the war marked the transition from the 19thto the 20thcentury in terms of geopolitics, technology, and culture. Because of this, it is useful to consider the world immediately before the war. Charles Emmerson’s 1913 (Public Affairs, 2013) provides a useful social history.

But it is the legacy of the war that is arguably of greatest importance. In the 21stcentury, we still see the remains of war in terms of international relations and global tensions.  In this regard, Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World (Penguin, 2006) places the war in context of the long and tragic unfolding of global conflict over the past century.

In our time, we often want more than the printed page to give meaning to the matter at hand.  The First World War seems so far away, a world of black and white photos and silent film footage.  We now have a fresher look at the past. Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Olddocumentary film has restored and enhanced moving pictures from the time.  Jackson, as many will know, is the director of the Hobbitmovies.  To learn more about his project, take a look at Atlantic Magazine’s recent review.

Peter Jackson’s film gives immediacy to a long ago time.  So too, do the readings suggested here.  The lasting legacy of the Great War is as complex as today’s fractious geopolitics, and as stark and somber as the poppies that are given out as reminders of past sacrifice and duty.   As always, it is important to take time to consider the past while looking ahead. Best wishes for the New Year.

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