From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Dr. Erik Villard
In October 5th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 92, host Theo Mayer spoke with U.S. Army Center for Military History Digital Historian Dr. Erik Villard. Dr. Villard and his organization help preserve the memory of the Army and have created a website devoted to the development and experience of the Army in World War 1. The following is a transcript of the interview.
Theo Mayer: For our Remember Veterans segment, we're joined by the Digital Historian for the US Army Center for Military History, Dr. Erik Villard. Dr. Villard has been on-point for the army's World War I Commemoration website. Erik, welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Villard: Thank you for having me.
Theo Mayer: Erik, the US Army Center for Military History, the CMH, has had its own history tracing back to the Civil War. Your primary responsibility is to be a historical resource to the army itself, right?
Dr. Villard: Right, that is our principal mission. We provide the historic confirmation that the army staff and the various army organizations would need for their institutional education and memory. We also have a secondary but important role in providing this information to the public and to the veteran community as well. We are able to accomplish both missions quite seamlessly because when we do this work for the army and make sure we get the information correct for the army decision-making process, it's a high standard of scholarship that we can share with the public.
Theo Mayer: Erik, what's the idea for the public-facing side?
Dr. Villard: Well, we have a multi-pronged commemoration effort for the First World War. The website is a World War I sub-site that is divided in 30 chapters. Each chapter comes out on a monthly basis. The first part of the website traces the evolution of the army in the period before 1917. Then, the meat of the website talks about the experience of the AEF in World War I. Then, the concluding chapters talk about what happens after the Armistice.
Theo Mayer: It's really comprehensive. You really worked hard at that. You did a great job. What's the visitor experience like when you get there?
Dr. Villard: Well, I designed the interface like a multi-function display. It's a type of device. It's used in a lot of military vehicles where you basically have a central screen. Then, you have option buttons on the side and bottom. Depending on where you want to go and what you want to look, those option buttons may change. All the material is scooped together on paper-sized documents. The advantage of that is when you download it, all the photos, and texts, and anything else saves the edit. It's a very easy way to view and share the material. I think there's something for everyone. It's designed to be downloaded. It's great for educators. You can just download entire lessons as JPEGs, PowerPoint, or PDF. Just as a whole range of material. Again, it really is optimized for educators.
Theo Mayer: Erik, what happened from 1917 to 1919 to the organization called US Army? There's no precedent in history for that kind of expansion and growth. Can you talk about that just for a moment?
Dr. Villard: I think it's fair to say that the modern United States Army was born in the First World War. The army that we have with us today owes much of its organization to the First World War. It was also a period of great technological change. For example, I have aerial photography, which really revolutionized the fighting in World War I because you had the ability to send a plane above, take very detailed photographs of enemy trenches and artillery placements, and provide that information to your commanders. It really gave commanders a situation awareness that we take for granted now with all our satellite imagery and cellphone. I'm releasing these files, so that you can get a sense of the scale and complexity of these battles in Google Earth on your own computer.
Theo Mayer: Erik, one last question- this is for you personally. For everyone who's fallen into this and dug into this (WW1), it's a voyage of discovery. What's the most memorable thing you've learned from pulling all this together?
Dr. Villard: It's been a remarkable opportunity for me because my background as a Vietnam War historian. Now, I've done some work with the First World War. I actually wrote my dissertation on Camp Lewis, which was a training camp in Washington State, but I hadn't done a lot with World War I. It gave me a chance to really dive deep. I think the thing that impressed me the most is the photographic record. You realize that if you look at these photos, at these individuals, they don't seem like they're distant history. They seem like they could be us. I think that's the most striking thing, even though a century seems like a long time, you look at this stuff and you realize, “No, it's still very much with us.”
Theo Mayer: Dr. Erik Villard is the Digital Historian at the US Army Center for Military History. Learn more about the center and see their really compelling website by visiting the links in the podcast notes.