Over There: An Update

Sheet music for "Over There" by George M. Cohan
"Over There" - from Johns Hopkins University Library

In just over four months of blogging here, World War I has been the second most popular tag so far at The Pietist Schoolman, behind only — surprise! — Pietism.

That’s mostly because I spent much of the summer reconceiving the January term (“J-term”) class I teach on WWI, converting it into a three-week trip to England, Belgium, France, and Germany. To help me imagine what that trip would look like, in late June and throughout July I blogged through where I expected to be at that point in the course, day-by-day. (You can find an index to the entire series here, or just start with the introduction and follow the links at the bottom of each post to the next day’s topic.)

Yesterday I got the word that our international studies committee and academic dean had formally approved the course, which will first be offered in January 2013. (So if you happen to be a Bethel student reading this… Save the date and be looking for our booth at the Interim Abroad fair next spring!) I’ll be leading it with my good friend and podcaster-in-arms Sam Mulberry, who will help fill in the significant gaps in my knowledge about art, literature, and U.S. history.

But first, I’ve got this coming J-term off and will be taking a compressed version of that WWI trip with my wife: spending several days in London, then touring the battlefields of Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and the Somme before concluding with a couple days in Paris and two more in Munich/Dachau. My hope is to post from Europe, sharing some new reflections, a photo essay or two, and maybe interviews with some of the guides we’ll meet. Look for that series to start around the second week of January 2012.

In the meantime, if you need a Great War fix, let me recommend Ghosts of 1914 — a relatively new blog (up since October) by Fiona Robinson, a doctoral student at my alma mater, Yale University. She writes that Ghosts, in keeping with her dissertation research on British culture during the war, is

meant to be a cabinet of curiosities and wonders–some possessed of strange beauty, others marked by poignant tragedy. As curator of this little virtual museum, I hope to share with you some of my passion for the history of the Great War and what it can teach us, who live in an era of conflict ourselves, about the experience and costs of combat. It is my hope that studying war will teach us to love and seek peace.

A “cabinet of curiosities and wonders” it is. Among her many enlightening posts, some of my favorites include those on:

  • Lt. Geoffrey Malins, the British “Kinematographer” (or, in soldier-speak, “movie man”) chiefly responsible for filming what I’ve already blogged about as “the first war documentary,” an astonishing film about the Battle of the Somme. Robinson adds a great deal to the little I had to say about Malins, drawing heavily on his 1920 autobiography (available as an e-book from Project Gutenberg). Based on that memoir, she concludes that “Malins felt immense responsibility both to Britons on the front and at home. He describes himself as being obligated to make the war real for those who have no firsthand access to it, and as being similarly charged with recording this cataclysmic experience for posterity. Thus, he had a duty to his country and somehow also to the war as an historical event.”
  • The history of knitting in WWI. A knitter herself (like my mother, who has no doubt stopped reading my words and already clicked the preceding link!), Robinson reflects on what was “an important—nay, essential—craft during the Great War. No mere hobby, the need for knitted items on the front sounded a call to duty for those at home.” In addition, needlecraft proved a rare example of how the divide between soldier and civilian could be bridged: “…there’s something incredibly moving about the sort of touch that a homemade sweater or pair of socks permitted. From the hands of a wife, mother, grandmother, sweetheart, sister, or benevolent stranger to the body of a soldier, knitwear crossed the divide between home and battlefield.”
  • And, most recently, the response of Mohandas Gandhi to the war. While Gandhi’s concept of peaceful civil resistance (satyagraha) has achieved a new vogue in recent weeks (see Ian Desai’s op-ed piece in the Tuesday edition of the New York Times), Gandhi’s response to the British appeal for Indian soldiers and labor during the war was not entirely what one might expect. Then emerging as a leader of the Indian nationalist movement, Gandhi initially focused on encouraging Indians to serve in non-combatant roles like ambulance driving (he had served as a medic years earlier in the Boer War). But in 1918 Gandhi shifted his stance. The pacifist celebrated by Philip Glass’ new opera (itself title Satyagraha) now called on Indians to fight on the British side in the war, like other nationalists hoping, “perhaps paradoxically, that, by helping the British Army, India could delineate its own identity as a powerful and independent nation–more like an ally for England rather than some subordinate entity. There was also hope that Britain would extend independence to India in gratitude for this military service.”

    Gandhi in the Boer War
    Members of the Indian Ambulance Corps in South Africa, ca. 1900. Gandhi is seated in the center of the middle row - Wikimedia

If any or all of those topics intrigue you, be sure to add Ghosts of 1914 to your reader and join me in learning more about World War I as the centennial of its outbreak approaches!

5 thoughts on “Over There: An Update

  1. Knitting was also an important part of WW2, with the American Red Cross providing standardized patterns for socks, helments (like a ski mask) and sweaters to be knit for American soldiers. I believe yarn was provided, at least at the beginning, in olive drab. These patterns are still available on line and are interesting to look at. Americans were generally much slimmer in those days, so the sizing is markedly smaller.

    Knitting for a cause continues today with dozens of venues available. My favorite is World Vision’s sweater project for children.

  2. Dear Chris,
    I thank you wholeheartedly for this extremely attentive mention of my blog, “Ghosts of 1914.” It is wonderful to think that I’ve been able to connect with other scholars like yourself and I am humbled by your kind words here. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy future posts! I will link to your blog on my own and look forward to reading of your travels and reflections on WWI sites/history.

    Warm regards,

    1. Absolutely my pleasure, Fiona. WWI is in my orbit of interests, but not a primary field of expertise (I took one seminar on it while pursuing my doctorate, but my work was focused later in the century), so I appreciate specialists like yourself taking the time to share your passion and knowledge.

  3. Prof Gehrz—Thinking of pietism and war, as part of your WW I discussion, I’d be interested in having you discuss the devotion of First Quatermaster-General Eric Ludendorff (the formidable–not to say fearsome and demented–commander of the German field army 1916-18) to the Moravian Daily Texts (or Prayer Book). Something was going on there that I don’t understand. Thanks for your attention.
    Bob Emery, Albany, NY

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