What Do We Misunderstand about World War I?

A week ago I had the honor of taking part in a panel discussion of World War I hosted by the Minnesota Opera and MinnPost. Alongside performances from the forthcoming opera Silent Night, about the Christmas Truce of 1914, we discussed the experience of soldiers and veterans — then and now.

Westminster Hall
Thanks to Westminster Presbyterian Church for hosting the event, in the church’s beautiful new hall

I felt like I’d already started to ramble on too long and so didn’t give a long answer to one question from the audience: What misconceptions do we have about World War I? “I’m mostly glad if we have any conception about the war,” I replied, too glibly. “Usually, Americans focus on the Second World War and ignore the First.”

But let me use a blog post to suggest a few things that we tend to get wrong (at least in part) about WWI:

America only played a small role.

Now, I did say something like this last Monday night — meaning only that the U.S. didn’t officially enter the war until April 1917, and American units saw sustained combat only during late spring, summer, and autumn of 1918. Most of the 4 million or so Americans who volunteered or were drafted never made it to any front.

But as I had said earlier in the panel, Americans were never quite as neutral as Woodrow Wilson urged them to be in August 1914. On top of the relative handful who volunteered to fly for the French or fight in Canadian ranks, there’s the far more significant economic contribution: American factories helped clothe and arm the Allies, with American banks extending the credit to pay for that materiel and American merchant ships often carrying it across the Atlantic.

And as little combat as American doughboys saw compared to their British, French, Belgian, and other compatriots, they helped turn the tide of a war that ended when it did as it did in part because of the political maneuvering of Wilson, who made clear that he would only negotiate with new governments in Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest.

It was all about the Western Front.

I’m guilty of feeding this misconception. Given the chance to lead a travel course on the war, I take students (and, soon, other people) to battlefields in Belgium and France. And obviously what happened at places like Ypres, the Somme, Verdun, and St. Mihiel is important for Americans and others to understand. It’s the kind of combat that largely defines WWI in popular memory, at least in this country.

Chinese and Indian graves at military cemetery in Belgium
Graves of a Chinese worker and Indian soldier at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Poperinge, Belgium

But even as I started to think through that course seven years ago, I wished out loud that I could go to places like Egypt and Tanzania, Turkey and Bosnia, Poland and Russia. This was truly a world war, fought by people from dozens of nations, often far from home. Given later developments in military history, for example, it’s worth remembering that Japanese destroyers helped protect British and French ships in the Mediterranean; on the island of Malta you can still find a memorial to Japanese sailors killed by an Austrian submarine. Even on the former Western Front, I think of the Chinese and Indian graves that one sees in Commonwealth cemeteries; the British war effort depended on poorly paid labor imported from Asia.

And the way the war was fought varied, even on land. If your image of WWI is an artillery bombardment of entrenched positions, followed by infantry going “over the top” and being laid waste by machine guns, then read a history of the war on the Eastern Front, which moved hundreds of miles at a time as Russia and Austria-Hungary’s poorly led, demoralized armies took turns giving up territory.

WWI was a “futile” war.

Here too, there’s a lot of truth to this notion. As I said a week ago, the supposedly “Great War” was a brutal, dehumanizing conflict that killed at least 15 million people, wounded even more, destroyed economies and governments, started a genocide, accelerated a pandemic… and all for what? Paving the way for Communist and Fascist dictatorship? Extending European empire? Planting the seeds of a second, far more deadly world war?

But even if you don’t agree with the revisionist historians (mostly British) who think that it was anything but futile to prevent German hegemony in 1914, you might find something encouraging in the story of the war. It helped overcome the last obstacles to European and (white) American women getting the right to vote. It may have seemed like a victory for the British and French empires, but it also fostered new anti-colonial movements. Woodrow Wilson may have ultimately failed to secure a redemptive peace at Versailles, but he inaugurated principles of international collaboration and collective security that, however imperfectly, have become fixtures in international politics. And the war did inspire powerful artistic, literary, philosophical, and theological reflections on the nature of war, peace, citizenship, and justice. (Not that all artists and writers agreed on the meaning of war, or rejected it for the future.)