A Lesson in History

WWI memorial in Collioure

I noticed something in June, when we met friends in the south of France. Every town, every village—some of them barely more than the intersection of a church and a barn—bears a carefully maintained monument naming the town’s dead from World War I. It may be five names (heartbreakingly, with two or three sharing a family name), or it may be fifty. But the monument is always there. After several months of long, heavy reading into WWI history, I have a far greater sense–respect–sadness–sigh– for why.

“For more than three years the armies on the Western Front were virtually locked in place, burrowed into trenches with dugouts sometimes forty feet below ground, periodically emerging for terrible battles that gained at best a few miles of muddy, shell-blasted wasteland. The destructiveness of these battles still seems beyond belief. …  More than 35% of all German men who were between the ages of 19 and 22 when the fighting broke out…were killed in the next four and a half years, and many of the remainder grievously wounded. For France, the toll was proportionally even higher: one half of all Frenchmen aged 20 to 32 at the war’s outbreak were dead when it was over.”  –Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars

in Saulieu (click to see it huge)

I began with Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-14. Prior to this book, if I had been on a quiz show and the host had said to me: “Describe the origins of World War I,” I think I would have come up with: “Someone assassinated the Archduke of Austria in a parade.” —Perhaps not false, in itself, but wholly inadequate as an understanding of the political situation that the assassination became the justification for blowing open (…ation). My recollection of my history lessons was that of the two world wars, we focused heavily on the second; and in both we focused on the American contribution. Thunder at Twilight, which ends when the guns of August begin to fire, gave me a good foundation and kept me turning the pages (even if at times, the author’s sense of drama came on a bit heavy). It brought to life many of the lives in motion that year, from the Archduke, to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II, to a young Adolf Hitler, to the determined students who hatched the plan of assassination—and why. One of the things about learning history is that it makes you realize there are always two sides.

Today… [Gavrilo] Princip is celebrated as Yugoslavia’s principal martyr; a bridge in the capital bears his name; a museum documents his life; his footprints preserve his memory in concrete. –Frederic Morton, Thunder at Twilight

in Anost, the photos fading

Next I chose Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars. This study of “loyalty and rebellion” tells history while following a handful of Englishpeople before, during, and (if possible) after WWI. They include Scottish socialist Keir Hardie, patriotic society wife Violet Cecil, author Rudyard Kipling, and Field Marshal Douglas Haig. The deep research draws heavily on personal communication and diaries (which apparently everyone used to keep). The author states that this is not intended as a comprehensive military history of the war, but I learned a phenomenal amount from reading it, and strongly recommend this book. When I put it down, for days I kept thinking of the line from The Lord of the Rings: “What can men do against such reckless hate?

in a cemetery in St. Sabine

“Every day one meets saddened women, with haggard faces and lethargic movements….and one dare not ask after husband or son.” –Beatrice Webb, 1919

Thirdly I went to the WWI memoir of Vera Brittain, a knowledge-hungry young woman who had finally convinced her traditional parents to let her go to Oxford when the war broke out. She left her studies after her fiancé and brother enlisted, and for nearly the war’s entirety served as a VAD—a volunteer nurse, initially with no training but ultimately with trial-by-fire experience in the most awful of circumstances. Full disclosure: this book is seriously long, and I am only 2/3 done with it. Reading the back cover will warn you that she loses everyone she loves. Brittain drives me a little nuts: it’s no secret that she thinks she’s smarter and more capable than most people; she’s unabashedly judgmental and opinionated… but it’s a true story, and, written while she was still young (she wasn’t even thirty when the war ended), it bares all the passion and disillusionment of an entire generation who either died young or watched as their friends did.

also in Anost

Thus I fell into one of those phases where things keep overlapping unplanned: My chosen reading, above. The TV show Downton Abbey. And then an addictive series of novels by Laurie R. King (the first is The Beekeeper’s Apprentice). This series did not purport to be about WWI at all, but instead a “new” use of the Sherlock Holmes character, imagining him later in life training a female apprentice. And yet with the books set in and after the war years, nearly every installment is tinged by it: Holmes investigates the death of a son whom the family suspects was shot for cowardice; a woman fears her husband is passing secrets to Germany. (Did you know that Arthur Conan Doyle and several of England’s most popular writers at the time were summoned to a secret meeting and asked to use their pens to stoke the public’s emotions about staying in the war? See His Last Bow.) There have been several times when I have become confused by King’s fictional narrator reminding me of nonfictional Vera Brittain, and wondering which of them said what.

Studying history raises my sensitivity to words, to phrases. On a food blog I normally enjoy, the author recently wrote a post “from the front lines of party preparation.” I felt completely offended by the insensitivity / inanity of the statement. I couldn’t read the post. When we toured a champagne house in Reims, I found myself asking the guide, “But weren’t these [acres and acres and miles of acres of] fields devastated during World War I?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied, taking a break from describing the glories of the Mumm tradition. Many of the vineyards were destroyed and the harvests during the war years were very small. “It was after the war that the grapes were planted in rows. Before that they had been a forest of grapes.”

in Chateauneuf-en-Auxois

When we planned our week in Burgundy, France, I realized that if we went a little out of our way returning to the Netherlands, we would drive right through the WWI battle area of Verdun. We debated adding this detour, but in the end I pushed for it. It simply seemed too relevant. And so it came to be that on a sunny, brisk fall morning, I found my feet standing in a WWI trench. Several trenches, actually; German and French alike. Our “half-day” detour turned into one night at a French motel and pretty much a full day of driving at a pace way too slow for local drivers while we interpreted signage and stopped at cemeteries, forts, and trenches.

And we will pick it up there.

Footnote: I am having serious issues with WordPress and photos today. Anyone?



Filed under European Travel

3 responses to “A Lesson in History

  1. Jo Ann

    Although it is fiction, All Quiet on the Western Front graphically depicts the complete futility and horror that was WWI, through the eyes of a young German soldier. The propaganda that was used to get young men to enlist and the lies that were told to keep citizens supporting this war were outrageous. It was banned and burned by Hitler prior to WWII, so powerful was its anti-war message and its sad portrayal of the rag-tag German army.
    Two poems I highly recommend on this topic: Siegfried Sassoon’s “On Passing New Menin Gate,” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

  2. Gil Varod [Via GMail]

    ….ation. 🙂

    Hey on a Holmes note, have you seen the BBC Sherlock series? It’s Benedict Cumberbatch and… man his name is escaping me (Tim from the British Office/Arthur Dent from the Hitchhikers Movie/Bilbo from the new Hobbit movie) as Watson. Anyway it’s a very clever updated version of Sherlock Holmes and everyone it in is fantastic, as was the writing for 5 of the episodes. Out of 6. While many BBC seasons (“series”) only have 6 30/60 minute episodes, this one has two seasons each being 3 90-minute episodes. It’s an easy series to get into because it requires less than half of the total commitment of one american season for both Sherlock season (I’m sure they’ll do a third when the hobbit movies are done filming, Benedict does Smaug). Season 1 is on Netflix if you’re netflixable, Season 2 I have on a hard drive somewhere and can easily get to you.

    Sidenote, I thought Benedict Cumberbatch was too overly-British a name to have not been made up as a stage name, so I wikipedia’d him to find out what his birthname was. Turns out it’s Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch. Well then, my mistake.

    • unquiettime

      I have only seen one episode of Sherlock, but I thought it was really well done. Also, speaking of great names, in “To End All Wars” they mention a conscientious objector named Corder Catchpool. I highlighted that.

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