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

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

1916 and the Great War's Awful Reputation

36th Ulster Division Advancing at the Somme, 1 July 1916

By Editor/Publisher Mike Hanlon

Note:  The is a slightly edited version of a commentary I wrote for the Trip-Wire when we were commemorating the Centennial of the events of 1916.

Something I am sure I share with our regular readers is the experience of periodically encountering someone who finds our interest in the First World War baffling. Sometimes this means members of the family. At our (happily infrequent) gatherings I have one female relative who never passes on the opportunity to ask in front of the assembled group, "How can you spend so much time on something so STUPID?" Another, an in-law, now dearly departed, used to regularly kick in, "You know, you picked the only war, you can't make any money at!" [Sadly, he had "gone west" by the time I actually got a check from the U.S. Postal Service for consulting work on a commemorative stamp issue, but he probably would have laughed at its amount anyway.]

Moving on, I've tried many responses to such skeptics over the years, from invoking George Kennan's "Seminal event of the 20th century" to my own view, "It's just bloody fascinating," followed by lots of specific examples. Alas, nothing seems to make a dent on their attitudes. Recently I've tried to turn the tables and have probed for the source of their disdain for the events of 1914–1918. First, of course, one usually has to deal with the modern [or post-modern] abysmal lack of appreciation for the past, the flushing of all of human experience down some enormous 1984-ish memory hole. However, I've learned to force myself to tiptoe around that sore point, fighting off my own tendency to rant about the cult of political correctness, the enduring sins of the 1960s' New Left, and the dumbing-down of American education. My recent attempts go something like this composite conversation:

MH: What do you find particularly off-putting about WWI?
XX: Trench warfare. It was bad, bad, bad. . . And the generals were idiots and didn't care how many men they lost.

MH: Do you know of an episode that demonstrates that?
XX: Yes, there was the time when a whole British army went over the top and got machine gunned down in no-man's-land. It was the worst day in England's history.

MH: Well, what you are describing there is the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and it was, indeed, a terrible day. Are there any similar cases you might have heard about? The war lasted over four years, after all.
XX: The French had some battle [Verdun] that was so bad, the next time the generals ordered them to attack [Nivelle offensive] they baaed like sheep and refused to go. And then there was Flanders [Passchendaele].

MH: What about Flanders?
XX: They had to fight in the MUD! Mud is bad, bad, bad. . . You can drown in mud. Did you know that?

MH: Well, yes. I think I do.
XX: And what about the GAS?

MH: (At this point, since gas is bad, bad, bad, I usually throw in the towel.)

Note that, despite my best efforts, I still inevitably find myself on the defensive in such exchanges. I've really got to work on my technique. Maybe I should watch more of the presidential debates. There is one odd aspect of these probes, though, that I've tried to reflect here. The events of 1916, most specifically the Somme, but also including Verdun—reinforced in vague fashion by the Nivelle and Passchendaele offensives of 1917—define the Great War for many folks. 

None of the events of the other years or fronts of the war seem to have made any impression. This appears to me to be especially true for people who are averse to studying history or consider the past irrelevant to their lives. Nonetheless, certain facts about the war are selected and they are magnified and distorted beyond recognition. Curiouser and curiouser.  MH


  1. Well, you may get bad comments from your relatives but I for one appreciate your time and effort. Owning a WW1 truck for a few years I realized how little I actually knew about the war. Through your writings I have learned much about what a horrible situation these men endured. THANK YOU.

  2. I completely agree with the prior comment. I have learned from you and you have and do provide tremendous references for those of us who also care about the past.

  3. For every one sceptic you come across, there will be many hundreds, maybe thousands of us who lap up your tidbits on every posting. You are a teacher. And educating the masses on one of the greatest wars of humankind is a good thing.

  4. I find people in North America and western Europe are deeply disinterested in Eastern Europe, so there goes the Russian front, the Ottomans, Romania, "the gardeners of Salonika," and even Italy.

  5. I think this quote from Jeremy Taylor (17th Century) might be appropriate here: "It is impossible to make people understand their ignorance, for it requires knowledge to perceive it; and, therefore, he that can perceive it hath it not."

  6. A great post and great comments as well - thanks to all. I also run into those sentiments and comments, but, what can you do but keep plugging away and sometimes it even sinks in. Thanks again and keep plugging away.

  7. After returning from a trip to the WW1 battlefields, a friend asked me if D-Day was a WW1 site. Resisting the temptation to be a wise guy and say yes, since the first D-Day was at St. Mihiel, I tried to tell him about WW1, but he interrupted me and asked: "So you didn't go to D-Day?"

  8. My friends have appreciated the centennial commemorative events of WWI. They have told me how much they liked my father's WWI memoirs and how events and his memoirs have helped educate them to realize the effect WWI has had on American history.

  9. As you have pointed out, we Americans are poor with our history, much less World history. I do find it interesting that your focus in discussions with your skeptic relatives is on one year (1916) and one battle (Somme). That's too narrow-almost like a trivial pursuit game on the laws of physics-not many conversant with that nor do they have interest. Why not try a "Macro" approach about why the war started and how it was resolved (Versailles) and how it still impacts us today? If that is not a winner, than make them listen to 'The Green Fields of France' (aka Willie McBride)and ask them why the refrain, "...and again, and again!"

  10. I cannot thank you and so many of your colleagues enough for all you have researched, written and shared. WWI has fascinated me since college and grad school (even did a master's thesis on shipping's role in forming an independent AEF--that paper was a very successful antidote to insomnia). You all have shown me how little I really knew, and you have made it FUN to learn so much more. Thank you Mike, and every one else, too!

  11. When I was in Junior High School, our history teacher asked if anyone knew how WW1 began. I raised my hand and said I thought it began because an archduke was killed. The teacher said I was the first student to ever answer somewhat correctly. (Thanks, Dad!). I am very appreciative of all the wonderful information here! My mother's grandfather fought in WW1, 142nd Infantry, 36th Division of the AEF. He died at 32, and we have only had whispers of stories about his life. Thanks to this blog, I have been able to learn so much more of his experience, and how it shaped his life. My mother is especially appreciative, and loves listening to the stories I dig up. Keep up the good work!

  12. My primary interest is American Civil War but I get the same questions. I explain that I did not have a dog in that fight since my family emigrated around 1900. Then I quote Bernard DeVoto: "The Civil War is the crux of our history. You cannot understand any part of our past from the Constitutional Convention down to this morning without arriving back at the Civil War." I then go on to remind them of events today that echo or CW past, such as some of the mass shootings. That gets them thinking. You could remind them that WWI and the post-war treaty sets the stage for WWII which in turn sets the stage for Korea and the Iron Curtain, etc. down to our present Middle East involvements. You can end by pointing out that the thread from WWI runs right to the auto they may drive, the gas they put in it, and maybe even the food they feed themselves, and then darkly suggest it may even lead to where their sons, daughters, and grand-children may fight the next war.

  13. Jim Lighthizer, president of the American Battlefield Trust, pointed out a statistic in US World and News Report college edition last year. Of the top 75 colleges and universities in the US, only 23 of them require a single course in American History to graduate with a history degree from their institution.