What’s New with World War I?

While it’s one of the most popular tags at this blog, World War I tends to appear here in spurts. But while I haven’t had much new to say about it since July, plenty of other historians have been busy gearing up for next year’s 100th anniversary of the beginning of what’s arguably the most significant war in modern history.

So if you’d like to prepare for Remembrance/Veterans Day by spending the weekend catching up on the history of the Great War, let me suggest a few links to explore:

ANZAC Cove Memorial
Memorial at ANZAC Cove, featuring the words of Kemal Atatürk (who led Ottoman troops at Gallipoli and later founded the modern Turkish state) – Wikimedia

• Probably the most famous battle of the war that didn’t take place in Belgium or France was fought in what’s now Turkey, on a rugged peninsula guarding the Dardanelles, the channel leading from the Mediterranean to Istanbul and the Black Sea. If you’re not familiar with the Battle of Gallipoli, read Andrew Curry’s longform article published this morning at Slate.

And even if phrases like “ANZAC Cove” and “Mustafa Kemal” mean something to you, or if you’re from Australia and New Zealand and are accustomed to celebrating a national holiday on the anniversary of your ancestors landing at Gallipoli (April 25, 1915), then you might be interested to read Curry’s report on the work that archeologists, historians, geographers, and officials from Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey are doing in preparation for the battle’s 100th anniversary:

The early results have been surprising. Unlike the fertile fields of Belgium and France, Gallipoli’s rocky soil was never plowed after the war, making it a battlefield archaeologist’s goldmine. In its field work over the past four years, the team has mapped miles of trenches and recovered more than 1,000 artifacts, more than anyone expected to find at a battlefield a century old. “I’m surprised at how much is left,” says University of Melbourne researcher Antonio Sagona, the survey’s lead archaeologist. “There’s nowhere on the Western Front where there’s a continuous line like this. It’s the best-preserved World War I battlefield anywhere in the world.”

…The survey is confirming aspects of the battle historians have guessed at from records and letters. Tin cans of salted beef, for example, only turn up on the ANZAC side of the battlefield. It’s evidence ANZACs—with no access to fresh food, and supply lines that stretched across hundreds of miles of ocean—ate a monotonous, unhealthy diet of corned beef, rocklike biscuits, and the occasional shot of rum. Not long after Sagona and Birkett-Rees record the rusted mess tin, Turkish archaeologist Mithat Atabay leads the team down the opposite side of the ridge, down a gully choked with thorn bushes. Brushing away leaves and dirt, he uncovers a hearth made of roofing tiles and bricks.

Stamped with Greek letters, the bricks were probably taken from a local house and reused as a field kitchen. “On the Turkish side, we haven’t found any [tin cans]—they were cooking on this side,” says Sagona. “Archaeologically, now we can show there were kitchens over here and tin cans over there.”

Inevitably, the team occasionally comes across human bones, which are reburied by officials from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, an international organization that manages the graveyards and monuments here. During the war, the battlefield was littered with corpses, sometimes stacked two or three deep. Men killed between trenches lay in the open for weeks or months, just feet from their surviving comrades.

• When I took a group of Bethel students to London for the first week of our J-term travel course on World War I earlier this year, my only major regret is that we weren’t able to visit the best military history museum in the world, the Imperial War Museum (IWM). It was closed for the first half of 2013 while staff overhauled the World War I exhibit in preparation for next year’s centennial.

Yesterday the IWM posted a preview of the new gallery, focusing on the Battle of the Somme (perhaps the defining battle of the war in British history) and featuring artifacts as large as a heavy howitzer, as intimate as soldier’s journals, and as significant as the first combat documentary, screened for a fascinated, horrified British public while the battle still raged across the English Channel.

Hastings, Catastrophe 1914• Also in London, the UK National Archives has developed its own centennial program, including digitizing a number of its WWI-related holdings. That’s already started with 1.5 million pages of soldiers’ diaries; upcoming projects include records related to conscientious objection. It’s also hosting a blog, My Tommy’s War, and podcast series like one called Voices of the Armistice.

• Finally, while few topics have been written about as much as the First World War, 100th anniversaries have a way of prompting authors and publishers to find new angles… Two books that I’m especially interested in: Catastrophe 1914 is by Max Hastings, whose acclaimed Inferno has been my main source in my (temporarily delayed) series on “The Second World War Before Pearl Harbor“; and then Philip Jenkins’ forthcoming book, Four Horsemen, explores the impact of the war on the world’s religions. He previewed key themes during a lecture here in the Twin Cities last month (at Luther Seminary; video not yet available) and then in a recent blog post at The Anxious Bench.


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