Learning about World War I: How to Get Started

British soldiers blinded by tear gas in April 1918
British soldiers blinded by tear gas, April 1918 – Imperial War Museum

Over lunch a couple weeks ago, a friend filled a pause in conversation this way: “So, World War I… What should I know?” We had been talking about the centenary of the war, and how it might be commemorated here in Minnesota. I think he had a growing sense of the war’s importance — but also of how little most Americans know (or are taught) about it.

Now, these days you can find articles and posts about the war seemingly everywhere — just in the last two weeks, I’ve had friends and students suggest pieces on everything from the underground cities constructed beneath the trenches of the Western Front to the use of Shakespeare by those supporting and opposing U.S. entry in the war. Many of my favorite magazines and blogs have seized upon the centenary. So far this week The Atlantic has already grabbed my attention with articles on advertising and the masks produced to help soldiers disfigured by shrapnel, and I love Philip Jenkins’ Anxious Bench series on how the various governments used images to sell the war to their publics.

It could all be a bit overwhelming.

So if that describes you — aware and interested, but not all that knowledgeable and perhaps leery of just how much is available — let me suggest a few places to start learning more.

1. A good point of entry is the New York Times‘ interactive page on the “100-Year Legacy” of the war. It maps the pre- and postwar boundaries of Europe and shows newspaper headlines from the war, but focus your time on the articles by Times correspondents, who combine past with present as they report from Belgium, France, Germany, Ukraine, Turkey, and Iraq on the ongoing, global impact of the war. They also include photo essays and short videos.

Imperial War Museum, London
The Imperial War Museum, London

2. Taking a virtual tour of the new WWI galleries at the Imperial War Museum may tempt you to plan an expensive trip, but even if you don’t make it to London, the IWM is coordinating 1914.org, a clearinghouse of information and announcements about the ongoing centenary. It hosts a podcast whose monthly (give or take) episodes cover key moments in the war, plus themes like recruitment and training, wounds, sports and leisure, and conscientious objection. (See also Voices of the Armistice, from the UK National Archives.)

Likewise, if your travels won’t be taking you to Kansas City, Missouri anytime soon, you can still visit the online exhibits of this country’s National World War I Museum. Among the current features are exhibits on food and music. (And here’s a report from two of my former students on their recent visit to that museum.)

3. If you learn best by encountering firsthand accounts and other primary sources… One IWM-led project is called Lives of the First World War: it currently tells the stories of over 6.5 million participants in the war, pairing museum records with evidence uploaded by visitors… The University of Cambridge’s Digital Library has made available twenty-three journals and two poetry notebooks from one of Britain’s best known war poets, Siegfried Sassoon… Day by day from now through 2018, The Telegraph of London is making available PDFs of what its issues looked like during the war… The World War I group at Flickr currently includes over 20,000 photos and posters, with another 8,000 at the “Great War Archive“…

4. When you’re ready to pick up a book or two… It’s thick, but Peter Englund’s “intimate history” of the war, The Sorrow and the Beautyis perhaps the most highly acclaimed recent popular history of WWI. (I’ve previously recommended it — and two other WWI books — in my 2012 summer reading list.) I’m reading Max Hastings’ engrossing introduction to the first year of the war, Catastrophe 1914, and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia, a sprawling account of the war in the Middle East that’s at its best when it sticks to its famous titular subject rather than diverging into the lives of supporting characters. (Both Hastings and Anderson justifiably showed up on lots of “Best of 2013” lists.)

Brooks, Harlem Hellfighters5. If your tastes run to fiction, Remarque and Jünger are always good starting points. But you might also consider graphic novels: The New Yorker just featured two by the French cartoonist Jacques Tardi, and there’s one on my office desk about an African-American regiment (by Max Brooks, of World War Z fame). And I’ve previously mentioned Joe Sacco’s The Great War, which pulls out as a 24-foot panorama of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

6. I’ve also made the case that WWI is the best-filmed war, if not as common a cinematic subject as WWII. Gallipoli remains my first recommendation, partly because it removes the war from its too-familiar Western Front setting.

7. And now that I’ve mentioned a few of my own posts, let’s go all in on self-promotion:

You really could do worse than browse around this blog. Sometimes the World War I tag just takes you to Saturday posts that include one or two WWI stories amid lots of other links, but there’s also no shortage of posts fully devoted to the war. A few highlights:

  • Over There and Teaching World War I in Europe: for the first two months of its existence, this blog was dominated by a series in which I thought through, day by day, a WWI course to be taught in Europe; start there, then compare my original vision with the posts I wrote while on that trip.
  • Commemorating WWI in Europe and Minnesota: an index to a pair of series on war commemoration. (See also my occasionally updated photoblog, Memento belli. Yesterday’s post focused on WWI memorials in St. Paul, Minnesota.)
  • Cathedrals of the Modern Worlda three-part series on the IWM and other museums whose holdings focus, at least in part, on WWI.
  • Was WWI “Pointless Carnage”?: explores how some historians (especially in Britain, but drawing on a German’s work) have challenged the notion that the Great War was without meaning — or a villain.
  • Military Chaplains in WWIa version of a talk I gave to Army National Guard chaplains last year.
  • “I think that I shall never see…”remembering Joyce “Trees” Kilmer as a war poet — a rather pro-war poet.
  • Iron Harvestswhy the death toll from WWI continues to grow year by year.
  • Clouds of Witnesses: Africans and EmpireI never did finish this series on a book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, but this post dealt with two African Christians who responded very differently to European empire — with one taking advantage of the first months of WWI to lead a revolt. (A later post in the series addressed William Wadé Harris, whose incredible revival in West Africa coincided with the war.)

2 thoughts on “Learning about World War I: How to Get Started

  1. I second the Imperial War Museum exhibits–they’re amazing, and a wonderful material history collection that focuses on the whole war on all fronts (including home), as opposed to concentrating entirely on military hardware. Visiting the museum is an incredible treat, but the online stuff is excellent as well!

    1. We spent a few hours at IWM when scouting the travel course in 2012, but it was closed when we first took students the following year. I’m pretty excited to see what they’ve done with the gallery when we go back in January!

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