John Pecoraro, Assistant Director, Manhattan Public Library
One hundred years ago on July 28, 1914, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, started in Europe. By the time of the armistice ending the war on November 11, 1918, the conflict was worldwide, and over 9 million soldiers, sailors, and Marines had been killed. This is the war we now refer to as World War I.
By now the participants in the conflict are history. The last remaining United States veteran of the war, Frank Buckles, died in 1911, at the ripe, old age of 110. In a strange footnote to history, Buckles was captured by Japanese forces during World War II while working in Manila, and was imprisoned for over 3 years.
Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time, “The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman is a classic history of the early days of World War I. Tuchman traces each step during those 30 days in August 1914 that inevitably lead to all-out war. Why inevitable? Because all sides involved had been plotting their war for a generation.
In “Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I,v” Stephen Harris tells the story of one of the few American Army units to serve under French command. The volunteers of the 369th, mostly from New York, faced racial harassment from civilians and white soldiers alike while training in the South. First sent to France as laborers, they later proved themselves fighting valiantly beside French Moroccan troops. The French government awarded the Hell Fighters the Croix de Guerre, their highest military honor. German soldiers gave them the nickname “Hell Fighters” because of their toughness, and the fact that they never lost ground to the enemy.
Imagine a battle raging over nearly a year, devouring hundreds of thousands of men. This is battle Paul Jankowski recounts in “Verdun: the Longest Battle of the Great War.” Beginning on February 21, 1916, Verdun ended on December 18. Casualty estimates range between 714,000 and 976,000. It was the longest and one of the costliest battles in terms of human lives lost. The battle accomplished little; the town and its fortifications had limited strategic value to either France or Germany. So, “Why Verdun?,” Jankowski asks. As in so many things about war, there is no definite answer.
Turning to fiction, the classic novel of World War One is of course, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” by Erich Maria Remarque. It is the story of Paul Baumer, encouraged to join the army by his school teacher in the early days of the war. At first an idealist, Paul quickly learns that there is no glory in the blood, mud, and death of the trenches. Returning home on leave, Paul realizes that nothing has changed in his hometown. The people cannot imagine the trench soldiers’ lives, nor do they want to. Disillusioned, Paul returns to the front, the only life he knows.
An immediate bestseller and winner of a National Book Award (1939), “Johnny Got His Gun,” by Dalton Trumbo, is a stark, troubling masterpiece about the horrors of World War One. Joe Bonham, the hero, awakens in a hospital bed after being severely wounded by an exploding artillery shell. In the novel Joe drifts between reality and fantasy, remembering his old life, family, and girlfriend, and reflecting upon the myths and realities of war. Also a screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was blacklisted from working in Hollywood.
Based on his own experiences, “A Farewell to Arms,” by Ernest Hemingway tells the story of a volunteer ambulance driver and an English nurse who fall in love when he is wounded on the Italian front. It has been called the best American novel to emerge from World War One.
For those who want a more hands-on experience, we are fortunate to be within easy traveling distance of the National World War One Museum and Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
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