Category Archives: World War I

Quote of the Day

Wilson460“This is the time of all others when democracy should prove its purity and its spiritual power to prevail. It is surely the manifest destiny of the United States to lead in the attempt to make this spirit prevail.”

-President Woodrow Wilson, Eighth Annual Message to Congress, December 7, 1920

According to intellectual historian Milan Babík, author of Statecraft and Salvation: Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism as Secularized Eschatology, (Baylor University Press, 2013) Wilson is the only president ever to use the term “manifest destiny” prescriptively in his official capacity.


“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.

100 Year Anniversary of the Start of World War I Next Year

Field Marshal Lord Kitchener

I am a huge World War I buff. If I had another 60 years added to my life, I would go back to school and earn a Ph.D. in history focusing on World War I–most likely the preparedness movement championed by Theodore Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, and others from the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 to the American declaration of war in April 1917.

World War I marks the beginning of the twentieth century. January 1, 1901 is not the first day of the twentieth century–June 28, 1914, the date of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, is. In terms of logistics, communication, and transportation the war was managed, at least in the first months, much the same way wars had been managed since Roman times. But by the end of the war four years later, everything had modernized so completely as to make the beginning of the war so different that it occurred to the mind more as a dream than a memory.

The personalities are fascinating. Back in those days, personalities, relationships, neuroses, hurt feelings, family dynamics, and emotional ties each had tremendous power to affect international events. Europe was ruled by ancient families, most of which stretched back to the Medieval period. The Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs, the Romanovs, and the Hanover/Saxe-Coburgs (of England) traced their dynastic claims back many centuries.

Even the generals are amazing–so often for their incredible incompetency and willingness to waste lives, though there were exceptions. Lanrezac, Joffre, Petain, and the indomitable Foch of the French Army; de Castlenau, von Kluck, Moltke, Crown Prince Rupprecht, von Falkenhayn–and who can forget von Hindenburg and von Ludendorff of the German Army; then there’s Kitchener, French, and Haig of the British Army as well as Jellicoe and Beatty of the British Navy; and of course, there’s the towering presence of the American general Pershing the moment he arrived in France in 1917 with the words, “Lafayette, we are here.” Awesome.

It is estimated that World War I claimed 37 million men killed, wounded, or missing. The most destructive battles in human history were fought in World War I–Verdun and the Somme claimed a million casualties each in 1916. On the first day of the battle of the Somme, the British sustained 60,000 casualties, the bloodiest day in Britain’s history. Such a waste of life.

One hundred years seems like an eternity–World War I has largely been forgotten by the American mind, overshadowed by the Second war. But there will be a lot of great new books out on various aspects of the First war next year, 2014, one hundred years after Gavrilo Princip’s revolver killed the Archduke and his wife, Sophie. There’s a new biography of President Woodrow Wilson by A. Scott Berg, reviewed here. There is also a new book by Margaret Macmillan, author of Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, on the causes of the war, a question which seems simple but has eluded simple explanations for a century. Macmillan’s book is reviewed here. And Max Hastings has a new book on the first battles of the war in 1914 that looks fantastic.

Exciting new books, and I look forward to reading them. If anyone wants to sponsor me to get a second Ph.D. let me know!

Eyewitness to the Death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 7/28/14

The assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand on July 28, 1914, precipitated the First World War within five weeks, and would permanently alter the course of history. The Archduke and his wife, Sophie, were returning from a reception at the Sarajevo town hall when Gavrilo Princip shot them both at point blank range.

This website contains a wonderful set of resources on World War I, including maps, articles, and multimedia presentations. There are audio and video files from the period of the war which you can easily access from the site.

One interesting resource contained on the site is this eyewitness account of the death of the Archduke and his wife.The account is given by Count Franz von Harrach, who was with the royal couple in the car where they were shot.

As the car quickly reversed, a thin stream of blood spurted from His Highness’s mouth onto my right check.  As I was pulling out my handkerchief to wipe the blood away from his mouth, the Duchess cried out to him, “For God’s sake!  What has happened to you?”

At that she slid off the seat and lay on the floor of the car, with her face between his knees.

I had no idea that she too was hit and thought she had simply fainted with fright.  Then I heard His Imperial Highness say, “Sophie, Sophie, don’t die.  Stay alive for the children!”

At that, I seized the Archduke by the collar of his uniform, to stop his head dropping forward and asked him if he was in great pain.  He answered me quite distinctly, “It is nothing!”

His face began to twist somewhat but he went on repeating, six or seven times, ever more faintly as he gradually lost consciousness, “It’s nothing!”

Then came a brief pause followed by a convulsive rattle in his throat, caused by a loss of blood.  This ceased on arrival at the governor’s residence.

The two unconscious bodies were carried into the building where their death was soon established.

Satirical Cartoons of World War I, 1914-1916

I’ve been re-reading portions of Mark Sullivan’s Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925 while my students have been taking their mid-term exams. Mark Sullivan was a muckraking journalist of the early twentieth century, and he compiled a popular history of the American people in the first eventful years of the 1900s.

The following are some satirical cartoons that Sullivan collected and included in the fifth book of his series entitled Over Here: 1914-1918. The cartoons appeared in newspapers and journals in the years that the United States remained neutral, but while the forces of the European nations slaughtered each other on the battlefields. The cartoons I have selected here follow the development of American sentiment about the war, from early desires for neutrality to that of preparedness for entry into the war on the Allied side.

Notice in these cartoons the attention to artistic detail, the use of stark symbolism, and the deep poignancy that arises from each one. These are aspects unseen in many of today’s satirical cartoons, which are usually one dimensional and often lack aesthetic and moral depth.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 34.

This cartoon shows Wilson’s determination to keep the US out of the fighting in positive terms.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 41.

This cartoon illustrates how both sides of the conflict sought to win American public sympathy to their respective causes.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 79.

It wasn’t long before America’s sympathies became obvious.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 81.

This is an ominous one.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 89.

Here, the cartoonist doubts that America will be able to stay neutral for long.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 121.

This cartoon appeared shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania in May, 1915. It is referencing the famous advertisement of the Imperial German Embassy warning Americans about the dangers of sailing on the luxury ship, since it flew the flag of its enemy (Great Britain) and it was passing through hostile waters. When the Germans torpedoed the Lusitania, it only took 20 minutes to sink. Nearly 1400 lives were lost, many of them children and infants.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933),  131.

After the sinking of the Lusitania, President Wilson began issuing a series of notes of protest to the German torpedoing of merchant vessels. More and more Americans were becoming critical of the President’s neutrality policy. Theodore Roosevelt became the primary spokesman urging American intervention and hammering President Wilson in speeches and editorials.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 205.

This cartoon speaks for itself.

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 247.

In late 1916, the Germans surprised everyone by offering peace terms. The terms offered were not at all acceptable to the Allies, since Germany demanded that new international boundaries be drawn according to the battle lines. All of Belgium and much French territory would have been absorbed into Germany. The Allies quickly and firmly rejected the German offer, but it lit a fire under Wilson. He began crafting his own peace proposal and urged the Allies and the Central Powers to consider his offer to mediate an end to the war.

Wilson’s proposal was extremely controversial and unpopular, because he advocated for what he called a “peace without victory.” Few approved of his proposal, and fewer still appreciated his interference in a war in which he had strenuously worked to keep America militarily uninvolved.

Here’s how the Germans viewed Wilson after offering his “peace without victory” proposal:

Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 253.
Mark Sullivan, Over Here: 1914-1918, vol. 5. Our Times: The United States: 1900-1925 (New York: Scribner’s, 1933), 255.

Here’s how the French viewed Wilson’s overtures.

Which are your favorites?

Top Ten Bloodiest Battles of World War I

World War I? Who cares about World War I? Isn’t that the war with all the trenches, mud, impossible-to-pronounce names, spiked helmets, and those funny looking hat-helmets worn by the Allies? Yep. That’s the one. This link describes the 10 bloodiest battles.

It seems that a lot of people don’t know too much about the First One. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know an excellent World War I scholar at the University of Virginia, Edward Lengel (author of To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918). He takes groups to France to visit some of the old WWI battlefields on the Western Front. He notes how view tourists are interested in visiting the cemeteries, the memorials, and the battlefields where titanic battles were fought. While the World War II sites are crawling with tourists, the World War I sites are quiet, grown-over, and largely neglected and forgotten.

I think that World War I is fascinating, engrossing. I cannot read enough books on the Great War. The old nineteenth century high European culture died a violent death between 1914-1918. The political order that had defined Europe for centuries went away never to return as a result of the war. The futility of the many of the battles, the ineptitude of many generals, the cheap cost of life, the terrifying conditions–all these aspects of World War I are haunting to me.

I recommend Lengel’s book very highly. The Meuse-Argonne was the first offensive in which Americans took an independent and active systematic role. When one considers what those brave soldiers were up against, it is truly amazing anyone returned to tell the tale.

John Keegan’s The First World War is an excellent treatment of World War I. The first sentence of the book states that World War I was “a tragic and unnecessary” war. From there, Keegan presents a chronological narrative of the course of the war, shifting back and forth from the war in the west, the east, the seas, the Dardanelles, and other places in the world where fighting took place. It’s a great book if you are starting from the ground floor and mainly interested in the military history of the 1914-1918 war.

Of course, A. J. P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History is one of the classic general narratives of the war, with excellent pictures, illustrations, and maps. It was the first book I ever read on World War I (read it in 8th grade), and it’s another great book to gain a general understanding of the war’s unfolding.

Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a fast paced and well written treatment of the events that brought the war about, as well as a narrative of the opening battles and movements of the huge armies that defined the war. Tuchman gives the reader a firm grasp on why the war began, and how the war took on the character that it did in the fall of 1914.

Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought goes back even further in time, tracing the background causes of World War I as far back as the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. Nobody can tell biographic stories like Massie, and he does a masterful job narrating the fateful decisions, intrigues, and complicated relationships between the policy makers of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Finally, Winston Churchill has a very descriptive and thorough history of the war entitled The World Crisis. His is a 5 volume work (Churchill is not famous for brevity) written from his unique vantage point as First Lord of the Admiralty during the war, and the primary visionary and architect of the Dardanelles campaign of 1915.

Many Americans understand much more about World War II than about World War I. Of course, the Second war was, in so many ways, a continuation of what was begun in the First war. Study the First war to gain an understanding of the course of the twentieth century, and also an understanding of Western relations with Middle Eastern countries. Study it also to discover the profound devotion of the soldiers to their nations and most of all, to each other. You’ll find it exceedingly useful.