“We Seem to Have the Upper Hand”


The First World War is fascinating to me. I’ve mentioned before here on the blog that if I had another 30 years or so to add to my life, I’d go back to school and get another PhD, this time to focus on the US Marines’ action at Belleau Wood in 1918.

Twenty fourteen marks one hundred years since the start of hostilities. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist. By August 4, Europe was at war. Four years later, 22 million men became casualties–52 percent of the total percentage of every man who put on a uniform to fight for his country.

The British Empire sustained over 3 million casualties in the war. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, sixty thousand men were killed. Sixty thousand in one day! That’s as many Americans that were killed in the Vietnam War from 1959-1975. It was the worst day of many bad days in the history of the British army.

The University of Manchester is holding an exhibit of a collection of letters from soldiers writing to their former professor, Thomas Frederick Tout, from the front. Most of the men who wrote to their old mentor were killed in action. Reading these letters and others like them brings home a small sense of the reality of an appalling war.

If you want to read a good history of World War I that is based on the perspective of the ordinary soldier at the front, pick up a copy of Lyn Macdonald’s To the Last Man: Spring 1918. You can also check out Macdonald’s oral history of World War I, entitled 1914-1918: Voices and Images of the Great War. Both books will no doubt stick with you for a long time.


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