Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Remembering World War I in America
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Remembering World War I in America

by Kimberly J. Lamay Licursi
University of Nebraska Press, 2018

It's no secret to most of us that memory of the Great War is kept far more alive and vibrant in Britain than it is in the United States. Now, of course, with the excellent work of the Centennial Commission, the construction of the WWI Memorial in Washington, DC, and the numerous articles and books appearing on the war, one might hope that public awareness of the conflict will increase. But will Americans become more mindful of the war and its consequences? And if not, why?

These questions are what this highly researched book sets out to answer. As the author states in her Introduction,

America truly came of age during and after World War I, yet many Americans think of it as merely the numerical precursor to World War II. Their only consciousness of the earlier global conflict is a hazy vision of parades, Doughboys, and trenches…But Americans' common perceptions of the war end there…battles and a general understanding of why war was waged come fairly easily to mind for World War II and the Civil War, but not so for World War I (xiv).

The rest of this volume is a detailed analysis of why this is so. Why didn't America continue to commemorate the war by great national and local acts of remembrance? Why were there no national keepers of memory? The simple answer seems to be that the post-WWI generation, including those who had been to war, simply wanted to forget. Many weren't at all sure it had been worth it. Statement like this, however, need to be supported by solid evidence. Remembering World War I in America supplies this with an insightful introduction and conclusion which bookend four lengthy chapters on "State War Histories," "War Memoirs," "War Fiction," and "War Films."

Illinois Was One of Only Seven
States to Complete Official Histories After the War
You may not completely agree with the author's arguments, or if you do, you might find them a bit depressing. However, you'll have to agree that she has done her homework. Chapter I: State War Histories (subtitled "An Atom of Interest in an Ocean of Apathy") shows that although there was initially tremendous effort at the state level to create war histories, most such histories never materialized. Only seven states finally managed to publish one. For would-be publishers, gathering material was stymied by "indifference of men" and "indifference to the history of the war" (p. 3). Questionnaires were often not returned by men who had served, although one county partly solved this problem by having police deliver and collect the forms.

"War Memoirs" (Chapter 2) fared somewhat better, as many soldiers wrote their own personal narratives. (We have published more than one on this blog.) The author includes in this category published accounts such as Mildred Aldrich's Hilltop on the Marne, Alan Empey's Over the Top, John Thomason's Fix Bayonets! and General Pershing's My Experience in the World War, plus several titles now largely forgotten. Although Hervey Allen's Toward the Flame gained more popularity than most, these and many other titles "were and are still relatively obscure in the larger literary canon" (p. 89). As with other genres she covers, the author convincingly cites publication numbers, sales figures, and library holdings to support her argument.

One of the most popular writers in the 1920s and later was Zane Grey. Sinclair Lewis was also well known for his exposures of small-town America. However, Chapter 3 of this book, dealing with "War Stories," claims that

Readers showed interest in tales about the war, but they preferred stories that used war as a backdrop for passion, heroic exploits, and journeys of redemption. Reading a soldier's memoir might have seemed like a civic duty but reading war fiction was immersing oneself in a martial adventure (pp. 93–94).

Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms and Willa Cather's One of Ours became two of the bestselling books dealing with the war. There were many others, including Dos Passos's Three Soldiers, but most are long forgotten. Interestingly, pulp fiction proved much more attractive to the public. Magazines such as War Stories, Battle Stories, War Aces, and even Love and War Stories, plus many more (some surviving for only a few issues) were among at least 48 titles that were either solely or partially dedicated to war stories in the 1920s (p. 136). Yet, despite their numbers and popularity, the war pulps were ephemeral. They did little to establish long-term memory or commemorative remembrance of the war.

The Stars of The Big Parade
Highest Grossing Silent Film of All Time

In the book's final chapter, "War Films," the author points out that movie viewers were far more numerous than readers. "The market for Willa Cather's books was numbered in the thousands, but the market for popular war movies like The Big Parade was in the millions." (p. 147) In the 1920s the movie theater was by far the most popular entertainment venue, with millions of Americans attending weekly. Thus, the war movie had the best potential for forming a lasting collective memory of the war. Why this didn't happen was that the public was more interested in "Shootin' and Kissin'" films (p.147) than in war films, although The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Big Parade, and What Price Glory? did at the time prove popular.

This is a fascinating book packed with facts, statistics, dates, titles, lists, and a full bibliography and index. It's hard to find fault with Lamay Licursi's arguments, given the evidence she presents. Her book has helped me understand the difference between America and Britain regarding how "alive" the Great War is in each nation. If you are interested in this subject, I heartily recommend Remembering World War I in America.

David F. Beer


  1. Interesting! I suspect the failure of the War to End all Wars to accomplish that goal may have made the WW1 effort appear ill advised and disappointing. Probably not something to honor and celebrate compared to the great victory of WW2. The French and British fought for more than 4 years while we fought for less than a year. I’ve always been disappointed that remembering WW1 seems to be largely the work of scholars and not the general public. The perception that WW2 was simply the continuation of WW1 after the failure of Versailles overshadows the real significance and sacrifice of WW1.

  2. Fascinating to learn how quickly and generally interest fell.
    How much of this is due to the Wilson administration's flailing finale, and the switch to a very different president afterwards?

  3. I think WWII caused it to be forgotten, but not necessarily because it over shadowed it per se. I'd argue that people cared very deeply about WWI afterward. Memorials of all sorts were dedicated for years...not just initially after the conflict ended. There were still big ceremonial events well into the 1930's.

    I think the main reason was USUALLY it takes about twenty years after something is over before all the big time reappraisals start. Well, twenty years later the world was descending into another war, so those assessments were put on hold...and then forgotten.

    1. Yet Licursi sees people *not* caring about WWI soon afterwards. That's what's surprising me.

  4. Well, I remember reading in one of General Harboard's books he thought it was quickly becoming forgotten too, but given his closeness to the importance of the situation that is understandable.

    I think other historians (like say Ed Gutiérrez) in recent years have said the "Lost Generation" was much more complicated than people just wanting to forget.

    1. Interesting.
      I wonder... maybe someone should do a post-11-11 blog, tracking developments 100 years later, to the date. That could illuminate this.

  5. As usual, an enlightening review. Thank you, David. Perhaps a competing view would be that of Jennifer Keene's book, Doughboys, the Great War and the Remaking of America, in which the author emphasizes the contributions of veterans to American politics between the wars and down to the creation of the G/I. Bill.

  6. I would be interested in a comparison between the recognition of the WWII generation as the "Greatest Generation", and the non-recognition of the WWI generation at the same point in life, because at that point the US was experiencing a lot of anti-war sentiment due to Vietnam.