Global in scope and multifaceted in nature, World War I remains defined in memory by the trenches.
By Michael D. Hull
World War I shaped the history of the 20th century, and it left political consequences that are still being played out. The “war to end all wars” precipitated the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires, promoted the Russian revolution, weakened the British Empire, and propelled the United States onto the world stage. Its peace settlement only laid the groundwork for another, even farther-reaching global conflict.
For the nations that bore the brunt of World War I, its terrible legacy–the sacrifice of a generation and the hellish experience of trench warfare–lives on in poetry and prose, in collective memory and political culture. “We associate the war with the loss of youth, of innocence, of ideals,” writes Modris Eksteins in World War I (edited by Hugh Strachan, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, $40). “The war stands, by most historical accounts, as the portal of entry to our century of doubt and agony, to our dissatisfaction.” The book offers a fresh look at the conflict and its legacy by 21 historians from around the world.
Literate, informed and balanced, this anthology includes examinations of the war’s complex origins by Samuel R. Williamson, Jr.; the strategy of the Central Powers by L.L. Farrar, Jr.; maneuver warfare on the Western and Eastern fronts by D.E. Showalter; the Allied strategy by David French; the Balkans campaign by R.J. Crampton; Turkey’s war by Ulrich Trumpener; the war in Africa by David Killingray; the war at sea by Paul G. Halpern; the American contribution by David Trask; economic warfare by B.J.C. McKercher; women in the war by Gail Braybon; mutinies and military morale by David Englander; the war aims and peace negotiations by David Stevenson; propaganda by J.M. Winter; socialism and revolution by John Horne; the air war by John H. Morrow, Jr.; the Paris peace conference by Zara Steiner; and the memory of the Great War by Modris Eksteins.
“For all the variation in extent, in place, and in degree of each participant’s experience of the war, cumulatively that experience assumed a collective identity quite unlike that of any other ‘total,’ ‘modern,’ or ‘global’ war,” says editor Hugh Strachan, professor of modern history at the University of Glasgow. “Its conditioning factor was, of course, the trenches. And it was they which gave an inner unity to the war, and above all to the memory of the war, in what was in reality…an extraordinarily diverse and multi-faceted conflict.” Strachan has done a masterful job of marshaling such gifted historians for this rewarding study.