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. (more…)