Text in Context: Readings for Our World War I Travel Course

In less than a month now, fourteen of us from Bethel University will leave for London to start a three-week travel course on the history of World War I. After eight days in England, we’ll cross the Channel to tour battlefield and memorial sites in Belgium and northern France, then wrap up with five days in Paris and five days in Munich (both sites helping push us into the postwar period and the effects of the conflict on European and American society and culture).

I’m intrigued to see how teaching works in this kind of environment, but one thing that’s already occurred to me is that I can perhaps enrich the typical college history course activity of reading primary sources (eyewitness accounts, period documents) by adding the layer of being in a place linked to the reading. So as I spent the weekend editing our coursepack for the trip, I kept some of my standby pieces from when I taught WWI on-campus, but then added some new material with an eye to reading those sources in a particular place.

Some (should-be) highlights, both new to the course and given new meaning by the locale:

Vera Brittain and C.S. Lewis — in Oxford

Vera Brittain
Vera Brittain – Peace Pledge Unit

Our one day trip from London will take us to Oxford, where our tour will give students a general introduction to the history of the University (and town), with particular focus on its experience of 1914-1918 as seen through the lens of two (or three, with J.R.R. Tolkien) of its most distinguished alumni. We’ll be reading excerpts from Vera Brittain’s memoir, Testament of Youth, at various points throughout the course, in order to share a different perspective on why participants involved themselves in the war, what sustained that involvement once the initial enthusiasm was gone, and how they thought about the peace that should follow the war. But I’m especially interested in using a couple of paragraphs from Testament to help students imagine how the war remade Oxford:

…I returned for the last term of my first year to an Oxford that now seemed infinitely remote from everything that counted. During the vacation, Somerville College, adjacent as it was to the Radcliffe Infirmary, had been commandeered by the War Office for conversion into a military hospital.

And I’ll be especially curious to see how the women on the trip (eleven of the fourteen participants, incidentally) respond to reading, side by side, Brittain’s recollection of her adolescent recognition that most of her peers had no ambition to attend university and then her later confession (returning for summer term in 1915) that her studies seemed distant from her desire to become a nurse and vicariously share in her infantry officer fiancé’s experience of the war:

“I would have given anything not to have had to come back,” I confessed in my diary. “If it had not been for P. Mods, I could have started nursing at once” — for to become a nurse was now my intention. It was not, perhaps, an obvious choice for a Somerville exhibitioner, but I was then in no mood for the routine Civil Service posts which represented the only type of “intellectual” war-work offered to uncertificated young women….I longed intensely for hard physical labour which would give me discomfort to endure and weariness to put mental speculation to sleep.

C.S. Lewis Statue in Belfast
Statue of C.S. Lewis (opening a wardrobe) in his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland – Creative Commons (Genvessel)

Then C.S. Lewis will make his only appearance in the coursepack at this point. As I’ve noted in an early (and still highly popular) post on this blog, Lewis wrote little about his experience of WWI apart from what he related in one chapter of his 1955 memoir, Surprised by Joy, and even there he professed his experience unremarkable. We’ll read of his time at the front, but as we pass University College (where Lewis began his studies in the middle of the war), I’m looking forward to hearing students react to this recollection of a kind of pre-enlistment “deal” he struck between himself and the British government:

Meanwhile [in 1916], on the Continent, the unskilled butchery of the first German War went on. As it did so and as I began to foresee that it would probably last till I reached military age, I was compelled to make a decision which the law had taken out of the hands of English boys of my own age; for in Ireland we had no conscription. I did not much plume myself even then for deciding to serve, but I did feel that the decision absolved me from taking any further notice of the war… Accordingly I put the war on one side to a degree which some people will think shameful and some incredible. Others will call it a flight from reality. I maintain that it was rather a treaty with reality, the fixing of a frontier. I said to my country, in effect, “You shall have me on a certain date, not before. I will die in your wars if need be, but till then I shall live my own life. You may have my body, but not my mind. I will take part in battles but not read about them.”

Mein Kampf — in Ypres

We’ll spend plenty of time with the legacy of a German WWI veteran named Adolf Hitler in the closing days of the trip, when we take a walking tour of National Socialism in Munich and visit the concentration camp site and museum at Dachau. But we’ll get a foretaste on the first day of our tour of battlefield and memorial sites on the former Western Front. Like tens of thousands of other young Germans (I know, I know – Hitler was Austrian, but he was fighting in a German regiment and thought of himself as a true German), Hitler first saw combat at the First Battle of Ypres, October-November 1914: what the Germans called “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” in memory of the thousands of inexperienced student-soldiers who died assaulting Allied trenches.

Adolf Hitler and fellow soldiers in WWI
Adolf Hitler and fellow soldiers – U.S. National Archives

In writing his memoir, Mein Kampf, about a decade later, Hitler didn’t entirely gloss over the horrifying and (for many) disillusioning experience of trench warfare, but reading his depiction of 1st Ypres while we stand on that ground (ideally, a muddy field on a gray day — so typical of that part of Belgium) should produce a helpful disconnect in students’ minds:

We marched in silence throughout the night and as the morning sun came through the mist an iron greeting suddenly burst above our heads. Shrapnel exploded in our midst and spluttered in the damp ground. But before the smoke of the explosion disappeared a wild ‘Hurrah’ was shouted from two hundred throats, in response to this first greeting of Death. Then began the whistling of bullets and the booming of cannons, the shouting and singing of the combatants. With eyes straining feverishly, we pressed forward, quicker and quicker, until we finally came to close-quarter fighting, there beyond the beet-fields and the meadows. Soon the strains of a song reached us from afar. Nearer and nearer, from company to company, it came. And while Death began to make havoc in our ranks we passed the song on to those beside us: DEUTSCHLAND, DEUTSCHLAND ÜBER ALLES, ÜBER ALLES IN DER WELT.

(Another translation of the line preceding the beginning of the German national anthem is even more appropriately overwrought: “Death busily plunged his hand into our rows….”)

American memoirs and speeches — at Château-Thierry

As much as anything else on the trip, I’m looking forward to visiting the American cemetery and memorial at Château-Thierry — among the places where American marines and soldiers first saw pitched action in late May and early June 1918 — simply because I haven’t been there before. To enhance that experience, I was happy to stumble across a collection of American primary sources from the war edited by Martin Marix Evans, including two obscure memoirs of that battle by an infantry officer named J.R. Mendenhall and a common private from Texas named William A. Francis. Here’s Mendenhall, early on the morning of May 31, on running into European civilians and soldiers on the road to the front:

It was blocked with refugees with their household goods, babies, old women and little children, crowded and piled on carts, to which cows and donkeys were hitched. Many pulled the carts themselves; and loaded wheelbarrows and dog carts were in the jam. Men and women carried their heavy loads with frightened children clinging to what they could to keep themselves from being trodden down or lost. The expressions on the faces of the refugees were most pitiful, and we began for the first time to realize something of the real meaning of war. Farther on, spaces between cars were forced and filled by small detachments of French and British troops, all looking thoroughly demoralized and discouraged.

1918 U.S. Marines recruiting poster
1918 American recruiting poster, employing a German nickname for the Marines – Univ. of North Carolina Library

Pvt. Francis’ memoir is less polished and more graphic. I’ve never been to Château-Thierry, but even in winter, I think it almost certain that it will seem far too lush and serene to have hosted a scene like the nighttime march Francis describes here:

The line has been broken up several times, it is very hard to keep closed up for men are falling into shell holes and old trenches and it is very dark. If the man in front of you were to go ten feet away you would surely be lost, the woods are so dense, and the Germans are too close to take chances of trying to find the other part of the line which is moving forward all the time. The lines are so complicated that you are likely to run into the German trenches at any time….The Germans are shelling us very hard; a shell hit close by, caving in our dug-out. A boy friend by the name of Burke was just killed, a piece of shrapnel taking his head off; another shell hit close by, killing two boys. I have to go on watch at three a.m. about three hundred feet from my dug-out. A fire is not allowed, so we have to eat hard tack and canned beef.

As they walk through the rows of crosses at the American cemetery, I also wonder if our students will be more sympathetic to Woodrow Wilson’s April 2, 1917 appeal for a declaration of war on Germany (“…the right is more precious than peace”) or the famous anti-war speech from Socialist politician Eugene V. Debs that will follow it in the coursepack:

…the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

Postwar German sources – in Munich

I’ve already written about my desire to have students read Ernst Jünger’s hypernationalistic reveries on rolling back into Germany in 1918 on a slow-moving hospital train — as they take a fast-moving train from Paris to Munich. I’ll be interested to see if they can empathize with Jünger’s notion of war as crucible — “something like a secular school of sanctification,” I called it in my original post.

Then once we’re settled in at our hostel in Munich, we’ll shift focus to the revolutionary politics of the postwar era in Germany and walk past sites that should remind us why the Nazis called Munich the “Capital of the Movement.” We’ll read Rosa Luxemburg’s (unduly optimistic, as it turned out) prediction that the overthrow of the monarchy in November 1918 was just the first step: “The German revolution has now hit upon the path illuminated by this star. Step by step, through storm and stress, through battle and torment and misery and victory, it will reach its goal.” But as we stand over the spot on the Munich pavement (marked by a small memorial) where Kurt Eisner, leader of a short-lived soviet republic in Bavaria, was assassinated in February 1919, we’ll find that an avowedly anti-Communist extremism would take deeper root in this part of Germany.

White Rose memorial in Munich
Memorial to the White Rose resisters in Munich

As we stop by the sites where the early National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) built regional strength (and read its 1920 program, which still sounds both nationalist and socialist) and then see the remaining vestiges of Nazi rule left standing in Munich, we’ll also visit sites dedicated to those who were victims and opponents of Hitler’s regime. We’ll pause at the memorial in the Hofgarten to the student-resisters of the White Rose movement, and read from their fourth leaflet — the most explicit statement of the religious convictions that motivated many of them to risk their lives in speaking out against National Socialist dictatorship:

Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defense? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.


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