Monday, January 14, 2013 – The Somme
Back on the bus for a brief ride across the Belgium-France border, then we’ll tour sites from the Battle of the Somme before spending the night in nearby Amiens or Arras (there not being a lot of group accommodations in villages like Péronne or Albert, let alone some of the smaller hamlets that were forced to host the bloodshed).
I’ve already touched on this battle earlier in this series, so I’ll just quickly mention a few spots of interest before moving on to the main point of today’s post:
- En route we might take a moment to check out one of two sites related to the Battle of Cambrai: the Tank Memorial at Flesquières (Cambrai was the first battle in which this innovation turned the tide) or the Louverval Memorial to the Missing.
- At the Somme itself, the most famous monuments are British: the striking Thiepval Memorial to the Missing (designed by Edwin Lutyens, the same man who created the Cenotaph in London), and the Irish memorial known as Ulster Tower.
- The Canadian memorials and cemeteries at Newfoundland Park, near Beaumont Hamel. The site also boasts some of the best preserved trenches on the Western Front.
- The 17,000-grave German cemetery at Fricourt, for a time the resting place of Manfred von Richtofen, the legendary Red Baron.
Unfortunately, we will probably not be visiting the main WWI museum in France, the Museum of the Great War in Péronne, since it doesn’t normally reopen from its winter break until a bit later in January.
This whole month being a down time for WWI battlefield tourism also helps to explain why our tour of the Western Front will pretty much conclude with this day’s trip to the Somme region, and not include a visit to the most famous French battleground site: Verdun.
As I’ve noted before, the British attacked at the Somme in July 1916 mostly in order to provide relief for the beleaguered French defenders of the fortresses surrounding the town of Verdun, a battle that had begun in February and continued almost to the end of the year. Terrible as the Somme was, it (like all other battles fought in 1914-18 and almost any other war) pales in comparison to Verdun.
All told, the Battle of Verdun claimed 300,000 lives (mostly French and German, plus colonial troops from French-held territories like Morocco and Senegal) and caused total casualties nearing one million. For a gripping survey of the causes, course, and consequences of the battle, read Alistair Horne’s classic, The Price of Glory (which helped inspire me to pursue graduate study in European history).
Virtually all tourist sites at Verdun are closed throughout January, including the Verdun Memorial, Forts Vaux and Douaumont, and the famous Ossuary where the unidentified remains of soldiers on both sides were interred thanks to a multi-national fundraising campaign in the 1920s. One can drive past some of the region’s villages that were wiped from the face of the earth over the ten months of battle, and walk by the “Bayonet Trench,” a memorial marking the spot where—according to legend—a French unit was buried alive when its own trenches collapsed, marked only by the uncovered tips of the soldiers’ bayonets.
But I’ve come to see the scheduling conflict as a blessing in disguise. Since I first started thinking about taking this course on the road (well, across the ocean), I’ve struggled with the problem of how many battlefields to visit. First, as I’ve hinted at several times in the series, I don’t view the course primarily as one in military history; I think it’s vastly more valuable to get students to places like London and Paris where they can also interact with the social, intellectual, and cultural history of the time. Second, I worry that seeing more than a couple of WWI battlefields will soon feel repetitive and numbing. (Much like the war on the Western Front itself.) There are only so many variations on trench recreations, museum exhibits, cemeteries, and memorials that one can see.
But skipping Verdun is a relatively minor omission when one considers that we’re already focusing on a small and perhaps too-familiar part of the war’s story. Time and expense don’t really permit any of the following excursions, but if they weren’t factors in course design and we sought to convey more of the dimensions of the war, we would try to visit:
Kansas City, Missouri
Quick, raise your hand if you knew that this was the home to the only American museum dedicated to WWI. I didn’t think so. It’s at the site of the Liberty Memorial, completed in 1924, though the museum itself opened to the public just five years ago. While we’re here, we could also head to nearby Independence and visit the museum and library honoring the most famous American veteran of the war to occupy the White House. (His successor, whose own library is the other direction down the freeway, was better known as a soldier but never saw combat during WWI.)
Focusing on Washington National Cathedral. Not only was its construction interrupted by the war and restarted thanks in part to the leadership of former American commander John J. Pershing, but it’s the final resting place for three Americans who, collectively, convey how WWI came at a turning point in the nation’s history:
- Admiral George Dewey: the naval hero of the Spanish-American War, Dewey’s triumph at Manila Bay led to the annexation of the Philippines, which helped convert the United States into an imperial power and a major factor in world politics.
- President Woodrow Wilson: the only president interred here, Wilson was arguably the most important individual in the history of the war—or, at least, its conclusion. Much more on him still to come in this series…
- Frank B. Kellogg: a Minnesota Republican who, as Calvin Coolidge’s secretary of state, helped negotiate an international agreement foreswearing the use of violence to resolve conflicts—a piece of paper that won him a Nobel Peace Prize, demonstrated the rising influence of pacifism in the wake of the “Great War,” and ultimately looked pretty ridiculous once Adolf Hitler began his project of “revising” the international system that Wilson had proposed and Kellogg had supported.
If we wanted to touch on the role of the Africa in the war, we could visit Senegal, which provided thousands of soldiers to the French Army, or the former German colony in Tanzania, where the legendary German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck led a largely successful campaign against superior British numbers. But Cairo keeps us a bit closer to our European destinations, and was the center of British military operations against the Ottoman Empire (including the Arab revolt coordinated, in part, by T.E. Lawrence). It also has a surprising connection with the history of Christianity: buried here is Oswald Chambers, the British evangelist whose famous devotional, My Utmost for His Highest, derived from talks he gave to British and Commonwealth soldiers training for war against the Turks.
Sarajevo, Bosnia / Prague, Czech Republic / Vienna, Austria
Focusing on the Western Front makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that the war started as an internal conflict in the polyglot Habsburg Empire, exacerbated by the neighboring Kingdom of Serbia. A logical place to start is Sarajevo, where the seemingly simple act of commemorating the assassination that lit the fuse of the July Crisis has been bound up in the complicated politics of Bosnia, as this blogger explained last year. And we could certainly do worse than spend a couple of days in cities with histories as rich as Vienna and Prague: the former the capital of the ill-fated Habsburgs; the latter the cultural center of the nation that responded most quickly and effectively to the demise of Habsburg rule, and then the capital of the most successful “successor state” to emerge from the ruins of their empire.
St. Petersburg, Russia
Finally, we’d be remiss not to note the Russian role in the war. For all their terrible losses, the Russians kept the Germans’ attention divided long enough to permit the British and French to hold the line in the West. And the war on the Eastern Front is a fascinating one, full of all the movement that quickly evaporated in Belgium and France.
But most importantly, the war led to the revolutions in then-Petrograd (two of them) of 1917, the civil war that followed (and the ensuing famine that prompted one of the great humanitarian initiatives in history), and finally to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. Which means that I get to have a lot of fun teaching the history of the Cold War every other spring.
We probably won’t get to Mother Russia. But if nothing else, I promise, promise that I will spend five minutes some night teaching my students this song about the most interesting Russian from the WWI era:
Tomorrow: en route to Paris, we hear the stories of two of the 4+ million Americans who served in the war.