One evening in November, 1914, I found myself in Calais
September 1, 2006 2:58 PM   Subscribe

The Great War: "People at the time experienced it differently. We may think they were misinformed and deluded, and perhaps they were, or maybe we have become incredibly cynical and mistrusting. What were once considered to be civic virtues are now thought to be quaint anachronisms at best or grand delusions at worst. Things change." The site proffers an incredible variety of popular-press articles and imagery concerning the unfortunate European events of 1914 to 1918.
posted by mwhybark (40 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
This is such a great link that I am stunned it is not a double. Thank you so much for posting it. Wow. The Childrens' books blew me away.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:04 PM on September 1, 2006

Link broken? I get a error page.
posted by Mcable at 3:07 PM on September 1, 2006

Great post.

I just read Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War. The typical soldier was entirely misinformed about the war. Many Brits believed the Germans were attempting to invade the islands; while some Russian conscripts weren't aware of the existence of Germnay.
posted by spaltavian at 3:08 PM on September 1, 2006

posted by dersins at 3:10 PM on September 1, 2006

Great Post.
posted by batou_ at 3:12 PM on September 1, 2006

Very interesting. Some of the color photographs from France make the soldiers look like they were fighting in our Civil War. How different uniforms and equipment evolved in just a few short years is surprising.

If WW I wasn't a "war to end all wars" I don't know what it will take to keep this from happening again.

And in the end, nothing really changed.
posted by melkozek at 3:40 PM on September 1, 2006

It's a huge site... could you perhaps point out some of the better pages inside for the more time constrained amongst us?
posted by trinarian at 3:48 PM on September 1, 2006

But everything has changed; the world has moved on, yet our lives could not be the same if not for the immeasurable dead and wounded.
posted by kuatto at 3:48 PM on September 1, 2006

I can't recall who wrote it, but one of the most interesting quotes I've read about the reasons for World War One was that it happened because it had become simply too hard to stay at peace anymore.

Reading about the causes, one certainly wonders if the war was inevitible in 1914.

That all being said, many of the documents at this link show how much society as a whole supported the war effort. This is a good companion to the Kipling link from earlier this week.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:49 PM on September 1, 2006

Addendum, via my man y2K's awesome murder ballads post. He suggests checking out "the Vintage Media pages at First World"

Shoulda timed the post a bit more elegantly, I suppose; but the parent link in this thread was opnly spotted by me today and it's rich and deep. I must share with my people!
posted by mwhybark at 4:28 PM on September 1, 2006

That's at, I believe. Where there is Enrico Caruso's Over There, for one.

And it was a vintage 78 mp3 post rather than a murder ballad post--I led with two murder ballads as an example but the rest wof the songs linked were all over the place as regards to lyric content or genre. I just hadn't come across all those extremely vintage mp3s at the Internet Archive before.
posted by y2karl at 4:46 PM on September 1, 2006

d'oh! or mebbe "my goodness!" - thanks muchly, sirrah.
posted by mwhybark at 4:49 PM on September 1, 2006

Joey: That was from "Blackadder Goes Forth" in the The final episode "Goodbyeee".
posted by Grimgrin at 5:23 PM on September 1, 2006

Magnificent. I happen to be in the midst of a WWI jag myself, so this is very timely. I just recently discovered there were Russian troops fighting in France (there's an interesting-sounding book on the subject), and lo, this site has a piece about them, with copious photographs (including a couple of "little Ivan" the mascot—wonder if he lived to grow up?).
As I stepped down from my somewhat exposed position a soldier standing a few feet farther along the line raised his head above the parapet, as though to relieve his cramped muscles. Just then a star-shell burst above us, turning the trench into day.

Ping!!! There was a ringing metallic sound, as when a 22-caliber bullet strikes the target in a shooting-gallery, and the big soldier who had incautiously exposed himself crumpled up in the bottom of the trench with a bullet through his helmet and through his brain. The young officer in command of the listening-post cursed softly. "I'm forever warning the men not to expose themselves," he said irritatedly, "but they forget it the next minute. They're nothing but stupid children." He spoke in much the same tone of annoyance he might have used if the man had been a clumsy servant who had broken a valuable dish. Then he went into the tiny dugout where the telephone was, and rang up the trench commander, and asked him to send out a bearer, for the boyau communicating with the listening-post was too narrow to admit the passage of a stretcher. The bearer arrived just as we started to return. He was a regular dray-horse of a man, with shoulders as massive and competent as those of a Constantinople hamel. Strapped to his back by a sort of harness was a contrivance which looked like a rude armchair with the legs cut off. His comrades hoisted the dead man onto the back of the live man, and with a rope took a few turns about the bodies of both. As we made our slow way back to the fire-trench, and so to the rear, there stumbled at our heels the grunting porter with his ghastly burden. Now and then I would glance over my shoulder and, in the fleeting glare of the star-shells, would glimpse, above the porter's straining shoulders, the head of the dead soldier lolling inertly from side to side, as though very, very tired . . . .

And I wondered if in some lonely cabin by the Volga a woman was praying for her boy.
Great stuff.

Incidentally, the "Jilinsky" so lovingly described in the article ("General Jilinsky reminded me of a fighting-cock... He can best be described as 'a live wire.' His staff- officers impressed me as being as efficient and razor-keen as their chief") was General Yakov Gregorievich Zhilinsky, who was personally responsible not only for much of the disaster of Tannenberg (see also here, end of page) but for the catastrophe that was the Russian invasion of Germany, since as War Minister he had rashly promised the French Russia would mobilize and attack within two weeks if war broke out, even though he knew perfectly well there was no way it could be done in less than a month. As a result Russian troops were forced to march for days before even reaching the border, fought without boots and food and supplies and reinforcements, were sent into hopeless battles in the wrong direction because there was no communication between armies and hardly any with the ill-informed and stupidly overconfident General Staff... The Bolsheviks shot him in 1920, and he's one of their victims I mourn the least.
posted by languagehat at 5:53 PM on September 1, 2006

Outstanding post.

Re: The Somme - "A victory of position, of will, of morale! Sharpening its steel and wits on enemy steel and wits in every kind of fighting, the New Army had proved itself in the supreme test of all qualities."

Those MFers were f'ing crazy.

"And in the end, nothing really changed." - posted by melkozek

Point taken melkozek. But at least people don't charge fortified machine gun positions en masse anymore. Not only the technology but warfare has changed. And people no longer unquestioningly go to war for their country in the numbers they once did. But new arms technology historically has led to massive die offs (WWI, the Mongols,, but hopefully we've reached a point where asymmetry at those levels aren't possible anymore - excepting a nuclear vs. non-nuclear power of course - and I fervantly hope we never use that edge.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:23 PM on September 1, 2006


I guess I really meant that the young and optimistic still die for the old and cynical.

In the case of WWI, there was, at least on the Western front, very little territorial advantage after 4 years of ungodly slaughter.

On the Eastern front much did change, but I guess not for the better.

It is hard to imagine the courage of the soldiers (on both sides) and the incompetance of the leaders.
posted by melkozek at 6:54 PM on September 1, 2006

Grimgrin: Thank you! Of course, I should have remembered that. One of the finest works of television art ever, that. I can't remember being so moved by an episode of a comedy series as I was by the end of that episode of Black Adder.

Some other excellent lesser known modern works about World War One include Frank McGuiness' play titled Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme, the TV movie All The King's Men, The Decemberist's song "The Soldiering Life" and any number of Pogues songs, including "The Body of an American" and "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda."

For all the focus America places on World War II, it seems like World War I is actually the one that had more repurcusions (frequently awful) for the western world.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:16 PM on September 1, 2006

A collection of contemporary Great War war porn. If you like that there's more, keep going back. Check out Invasion literature, Franco-Prussian war-porn.
posted by stbalbach at 7:16 PM on September 1, 2006

If you ever want to read a book that portrays what things were like on the home front during WWI, try L.M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside. I remember thinking it was propaganda when I first read it as a teenager, but Montgomery was actually in earnest when she wrote it. She was an intelligent and well-read woman, and like a lot of people she was convinced WWI was a righteous war. So you get descriptions of the women at home trying to "save and serve" by curtailing their use of eggs and sugar, buying Victory Bonds, organizing fund raisers, knitting socks, and plowing up the lawn of Ingleside to plant potatoes, and of the men talking about their duty to Mother England and of "the evil that has to be wiped out of the world".

One of the most disturbing elements in the book was the vilification of a neighbour of theirs, who was an avowed pacifist. Public opinion was decidedly against him, and on the night of a German victory, a group of young boys broke his windows, and the other characters in the book were pleased to hear it despite showing some disapproval as a matter of form.

They all followed the news avidly, believed that the Germans actually bayoneted babies, loathed the Kaiser, were impatient with Wilson's reluctance to get into the war, and revered Lloyd George and Kitchener. The reverence of Kitchener especially drives me batshit. Kitchener probably managed to kill of more of his own men than any German officer did. He sent regiment after regiment of calvary out to fight tanks. But he was lionized, despite a career of this kind of garbage (let's not even get into his Boer War record). And in Ontario, the town of New Berlin was renamed Kitchener after this man!

The story of WWI is a like a morality play demonstrating the importance of desseminating truth rather than lies and propaganda, because good people will act upon those lies and propaganda in good faith, and the damage will be immeasurable.
posted by orange swan at 7:18 PM on September 1, 2006

Wonderful story about British soldiers escaping from a Turkish POW camp. There still seemed to be a gentlemanly respect between combatants.
posted by mert at 7:35 PM on September 1, 2006

the town of New Berlin was renamed Kitchener after this man

In Victoria Park, in what was then downtown New Berlin, Ontario, a bust of the Kaiser had been on prominent display since 1897. During the Great War unknown individuals removed from it's pedestal and tossed into the adjacent lake not once, but twice. Eventually it disappeared altogether, and shortly after that the town was renamed.
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:32 PM on September 1, 2006

The industrial revolution in military affairs: machine guns, trench warfare, poison gas, the Front, airplanes, tanks, submarines, and dreadnoughts.

The invoice: grist, the Broken Faces, the lost, casualties, the dead.

The results.
posted by cenoxo at 9:31 PM on September 1, 2006

Holy fuck, that site is incredible. My favorite page so far is the account of four British prisoners escaping from Turkish guard and fleeing across the Ottoman empire. An excerpt:
Bluff had served us so well up to this point that we were over-confident, and disaster followed. We knew it was too early for any inhabitants to be about, but we had only gone a few yards when to our horror we stumbled on a sentry. We passed him with a greeting in Turkish, but he followed and said his sergeant wished to speak to us. We turned back, only to be confronted by an armed guard of ten men.

We told the sergeant the usual story, and showed him our passport. We added that we wished to hire a boat to take us to another Turkish port, and we asked him to negotiate a passage in the boat we had seen. The sergeant suggested that we should go with him by water to a town a few miles westward, to see his officer. We said we couldn't spare the time, but he would take no refusal and compelled us to embark with part of the guard. During the passage we saw several boats that seemed to be unwatched, and we cursed the fate that had made us turn to the right instead of the left when we reached the beach that morning. We had little doubt that we could have secured a boat and got away in it at night, if we had not run into the guard.

On arrival at our destination we stayed in the boat while Sweet, who acted the part of the German officer named in the passport, went to interview the gendarme officer. He actually convinced him that we were Germans, and the officer was conducting him back to the boat when, as luck would have it, they met a naval officer, who probably knew a German when he saw one and insisted that Sweet should visit the Governor of the town. The Governor sent for the rest of us, and said that as we were Germans we would probably like to speak to a German officer on the telephone. He gave the receiver to Tipton, who, poor man, knew no German but Sprechen sie deutsch? This he gallantly shouted half-a-dozen times into the mouthpiece. Then he put the receiver back in disgust, saying the line was out of order. But the Governor was only amusing himself; he had a description of us, and the game was up. He was politeness itself, and there was nothing for us to do but to try and look pleasant too.
Great post, mwhybark, though you might want to add a "history" tag to it.
posted by gsteff at 9:57 PM on September 1, 2006

Excellent post, mwhybark - thank you!
posted by madamjujujive at 10:57 PM on September 1, 2006

Of all the wars I've studied, WWI always makes me feel the most sad. WWII slaughtered more people, of course. But I don't know of any other war where so many fine young men in uniform were wasted so badly because their generals were so incredibly pigheaded and inept.

The utterly useless slaughter on the Western Front got so bad eventually that the French Army at the front mutineed. After the latest misbegotten offensive resulted in 100,000 French dead in a week, 54 French divisions refused to obey any further orders to attack.

When I read about Ypres, or the Somme, or Verdun, I am appalled at the utter idiocy of the commanders who repeatedly used human wave charges which had already been proved to be utterly useless.

The British lost 57,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead, in one day at the Somme. And they didn't get anything at all for it. Nothing!

There were 800,000 French and German casualties at Verdun. Such a waste. Such an awful waste.

There were about 50 generals on all sides that should have faced a firing squad during the war IMHO.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:37 PM on September 1, 2006

The British lost 57,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead, in one day at the Somme. And they didn't get anything at all for it. Nothing!

We prevented the fall of Verdun to the Germans: this would probably have destroyed the French army and cost us the war.
posted by alasdair at 3:50 AM on September 2, 2006

I shall use this as an opportunity to pipe up again about Pat Mill's "Charley's War" - an incredible comic book which showed the horror of World War I and captivated me as a child, whilst at the same time showing me the sheer horror the average man faced in those trenches. If you've never read it you should give it a try - fantastic artwork, research and characters.
posted by longbaugh at 5:59 AM on September 2, 2006

For bonus points ignore the piss-poor construction of that comment, or you know, add the word horror a couple more times...
posted by longbaugh at 6:01 AM on September 2, 2006

We prevented the fall of Verdun to the Germans: this would probably have destroyed the French army and cost us the war.

Were you actually personally present at the Somme, alasdair?
posted by Skeptic at 6:34 AM on September 2, 2006

Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front are both excellent World War I movies. It's more of a romance, but A Very Long Engagement has some great World War I scenes.

The British had more people killed in one day at the Somme than the US has lost in some entire wars.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:36 AM on September 2, 2006

Great site. I like how the writing has been pulled from the newsprint and reprinted, so you don't have to squint at a copy of the old newspaper. The writing of some of the war correspondents is so good. I always think of newspaper writing of that era (generally, not specific to war writing) being over-wrought, flowery, nationalistic, colorful (in good and bad ways), but this writing is just the opposite -- stark, bare, compelling.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:28 AM on September 2, 2006

The British lost 57,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead, in one day at the Somme. And they didn't get anything at all for it. Nothing!

The British prevented the fall of Verdun to the Germans: this would probably have destroyed the French army and cost the Western Allies the war.

(If you think it makes a difference! Just wanted to make my nationality, and potential bias, clear. Sorry if it came across as jingoistic.)
posted by alasdair at 11:07 AM on September 2, 2006

Marvelous stuff. Like L-hat, I'm in the midst of a WWI obsession too.

Did anyone else hate "The Great War and Modern Memory?" I had heard such great things....
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:41 AM on September 2, 2006

Been years and years since I read it and I don't recall hating it, but I would be interested in knowing why you do.

My memory of that book's debut is that not a lot of WWI was being published at that time. Military History sections were dedicated to the latest Civil War and WWII titles (also Napoleanic wars in the UK). Fussell seems to have presaged a shift that in recent years has become a modest flood of interest.

Any thoughts as to why this war has become fashionable again?
posted by IndigoJones at 12:10 PM on September 2, 2006

Any thoughts as to why this war has become fashionable again?

I think that WWI is seen as one of those points in human history where a large chunk of society changed. Perhaps we feel that we are on the cusp of another momentous shift in the world.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:16 PM on September 2, 2006

I don't recall hating it, but I would be interested in knowing why you do.

Because the whole book felt as if the author were tapping me on the shoulder endlessly to say, "Hi. I'm going to interrupt your enjoyment of the many very interesting historical and cultural vignettes I've compiled here by whacking you over the head with my thesis until your ears bleed, which is the war birthed modern irony. I'll repeat it, Irony. Irony. Irony. Didn't exist until 1914. Irony. Interesting isn't it? It's my thesis that it is. Irony. Got it? Let me say it in about 7 dozen different ways again, just to make sure."

Any thoughts as to why this war has become fashionable again?

Personally, I started reading about it again after the end of Upstairs Downstairs spurred me to go look up the WWI poets I loved in high school. But the central feature of that war (besides frigging irony) seems to be the massive tragic uselessness of the whole thing and maybe that's striking a chord again. Rummy's referencing the wrong World War.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:20 PM on September 2, 2006

WWI is notable among other reasons for bringing about the end of the imperial system in Europe. Before WWI several major nations in Europe were ruled by monarchs (the Kaiser, the Czar) but after WWI all you had were ceremonial "constitutional" monarchs who had no real power.

Part of why it might be revived in interest now is because it's the end of the era of the last gasps of feudalism, so there may be some nostalgia involved.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:36 PM on September 2, 2006

I'll repeat it, Irony. Irony. Irony.

Fair enough. Mind you, when he wrote it (1975), irony wasn't nearly the hackneyed thing it has since become.

Then too, he had had a career teaching undergraduates, on whom repetition is almost mandatory....
posted by IndigoJones at 7:45 PM on September 2, 2006

*ahem* I agree, great site.
posted by tellurian at 8:48 PM on September 4, 2006

“I guess I really meant that the young and optimistic still die for the old and cynical.” - posted by melkozek

I figured ya did. I agree.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:58 AM on September 5, 2006

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