I’m going to start today’s blog post with a somewhat bold statement: our society tends to ignore World War I in favor of World War II. This premise would honestly be better served by a full-length academic paper with heaps of evidence cited than by a blog post, but I honestly believe it to be so. A quick Google search (the poor man’s equivalent of real research) reveals, for example, that, by the end of the 1940s alone, the world had already produced 350 theatrical films about World War II, and has shown no signs of slowing down in the 65 years since, while World War I has apparently only rated the movie treatment 137 times total between 1918 and today (that’s 97 years, for the non-mathematicians among us). I could go on, but I think that these numbers on their own amply illustrate the stark difference in the treatment of the two wars in cultural and historical memory.
There are many reasons for this discrepancy, but I believe that it boils down to three main causes which, in turn, boil down to an inescapable conclusion : World War II (from here on, WWII) makes a better story than World War I (WWI). A good narrative usually benefits from clear protagonists and antagonists, exciting and easily-followed proceedings, and a definitive sense of closure. WWII has these in spades, while WWI is severely lacking in all these criteria.
While WWII gave us the perfect villains (after all, who makes a better villain than a Nazi?), turning us into the ultimate good guys who were fighting for freedom (or, as Captain America put it, “for truth, justice, and the American way!”), WWI was mired down by sides who were mostly only fighting each other because their allies were also fighting each other and they were obligated to respond in kind. Looking at the early days of WWI is like nothing so much as watching one domino after another inevitably fall: Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia over the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, so Germany (Austria-Hungary’s ally) immediately declared war on Serbia and Russia (Serbia’s ally), then followed with a declaration of war on France (ditto) and invaded neutral Belgium. That invasion led to Britain (sworn to protect Belgium’s neutrality) declaring war on Germany. Austria-Hungary then declared war on Russia, while Serbia declared war on Germany. Britain and France joined together to declare war on Austria-Hungary… Are your eyes rolling backwards in your head yet? Because this is all just within the first two weeks of the four-and-a-half year war. Declarations of war continued to fly back and forth between countries all over the world for the duration of the war, finally capped by Romania’s second entry into the war the very day before the war ended. Did the soldiers know for what causes they were fighting? Or was it just an ill-defined sense of glory and patriotism? For that matter, do we have any idea for what causes they were fighting, a hundred years later?
WWII is chock-full of battles and major movements that are as thrilling and as easy for a layman to follow as military actions could possibly be: The Battle of the Bulge! The Blitz! The Fire-bombing of Tokyo/Dresden! And, of course, that ultimate giant leap by Allied Forces into mainland Europe, D-Day! Each of these events is easily distinguished from each other and relatively unique in and of themselves. Whereas, WWI had… what? Various doomed charges across No Man’s Land in, frankly, ridiculous and unproductive efforts to gain a few yards of land here, a few yards of land there. While there were other singular large events during the war (such as the sinking of the Lusitania, which is something I’ll be writing about soon), the image of WWI that has come down to us is mired in mud and inertia, and one moment during the war or image of the war is, honestly, indistinguishable by anyone save WWI historians from any other moment or image.
And finally, WWII gave us clear-cut victories over both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan – few things are as definitive as punctuation as a nuclear bomb or as the leader of the enemy shooting himself in the head as you storm the city outside his bunker – and WWI gave us a war that ended at least partially because both sides were so sick with the flu (the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, which I’ll also likely talk about more in a later blog post). Even the moment of victory was muddied, as many soldiers continued firing even after the armistice was declared, believing that it would be only temporary (per the writings of Colonel Thomas Gowenlock, an intelligence officer in the American 1st Division). They could not celebrate:
“After the long months of intense strain, of keying themselves up to the daily mortal danger, of thinking always in terms of war and the enemy, the abrupt release from it all was physical and psychological agony. Some suffered a total nervous collapse. Some, of a steadier temperament, began to hope they would someday return to home and the embrace of loved ones. Some could think only of the crude little crosses that marked the graves of their comrades. Some fell into an exhausted sleep. All were bewildered by the sudden meaninglessness of their existence as soldiers - and through their teeming memories paraded that swiftly moving cavalcade of Cantigny, Soissons, St. Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne and Sedan.”*
No wonder that there have been so few movies about World War I. No one who doesn’t feel like being depressed would ever choose to watch one.
However, there are a few truly fascinating things about World War I that – besides its historical importance, which is on the level with that of World War II – make it worth knowing about, even a century later. World War I was the crucible in which modernity, especially modern warfare, was shaped, and that will be the topic of next week’s blog.
*Corporal Thomas Gowenlock, cited from Eyewitness to History