Teaching the Great War 100 Years Later
By Chris Davis
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site
When I was asked by the History Department what course I would like to teach for the fall of 2018, there was no hesitation in my response.
In the fourth year of my Ph.D. program in U.S. History at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I had just wrapped up the spring semester teaching a course on the first half of the twentieth century. Since my area is in the WWI era, for a course whose scope spanned both world wars, I devoted the first half of the course to understanding the causes and consequences of the First World War and transitioned into how it connected with the Second.
The students throughout the course often told me that this was the most detail about WWI history they had been exposed to up to that point, and I was glad to have given them a greater appreciation for it, but I still felt limited in having to move on to WWII halfway through. What I really wanted, what I imagined I would someday get to do, was to teach a course that gave The Great War its due.
Shortly after the spring of 2018, I would find out that “someday” was going to be in a few months. I got my wish and, not only would I be teaching a course on my favorite topic, but this course would coincide with the centennial of the war’s end. To say I was excited would be a gross understatement, but the centennial added pressure, as well as opportunities, to make sure I got it right. That summer involved a lot of brainstorming to bring my dream course to fruition.
When the fall semester started, I began the first day of my class (entitled “The Great War”) with a question: How much have you learned about World War I prior to today? The answer was largely what I expected. Very few of these undergraduates were history majors, and their knowledge of World War I was essentially that the name “World War II” implied that there had been one. I reassured them that was okay, because we would spend the next 16 weeks fixing that.
I also told them we would spend that time answering one big, overarching question: Why does a war that ended 100 years ago matter to you? By the end of the course, writings assignments, class discussions, and exam essay responses demonstrated that the students understood how the Great War led to the rise of the United States as a superpower, the partitioning the Middle East and its consequences all the way to the present, and how it connected directly and indirectly to successive conflicts such as the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam to name a few.
Students also were able to relate the war on more personal terms as we used articles from the Centennial Commission’s Daily Digest Bulletin to explore the experiences of individual soldiers, as well as focusing on how the war brought about changes in the role of women and African-Americans within American society. Partnering with the Greensboro History Museum, and their centennial exhibit “Lest We Forget: WWI Through the Eyes of Nine”, allowed students to see how local individuals of all walks of life were impacted by the war. Many of the students commented that this made the topic feel more tangible and personal to see it through individual lives and experiences.
One particular article from the Centennial Bulletin offered a fitting discussion to wrap up the course with, and in a way that further personalized how students thought about the war. As places like North Carolina continue to engage in social and political debates over the status of Confederate monuments, an article regarding German monuments for the First and Second World Wars gave my students the ability to examine similar debates from another perspective. The result was a great class conversation about the difference between history and historical memory, and the challenges nations and communities face trying to honor their citizens who sacrificed their lives while fighting for the losing side, and, furthermore, for a side whose goals included the oppression of others.
The end of the course also included a less serious look at how WWI is remembered today through popular culture in the form of television comedy skits, memes, and an amusing (if overgeneralized) description of the war as if it were a bar fight (http://themetapicture.com/if-wwi-was-a-bar-fight/). In its own way, this light-hearted last look at the impact of the war also served as an indication of what they had learned, as the students laughed at jokes they would not have gotten 16 weeks earlier. The Second World War often, and in many ways understandably, overshadows the First in popular culture. After all, it was an even larger and deadlier conflict than its predecessor, with most people still having grown up with a living relative that had fought in it, and it is one of the few conflicts in human history where it is almost universally agreed upon who the villains of the story were. Nevertheless, my students ended The Great War class telling me that they now understood how important WWI was in understanding the causes of WWII, and how, in many ways, the 21st century world they know was formed between 1914-1918.
The class benefited greatly in terms of events, available content, and attention as it coincided with the centennial of Armistice Day, but with the centennial now having come and gone the question becomes “Where do we go from here?” Because the Great War was so overshadowed by WWII in American historical memory, it took a significant anniversary to bring it back into the public mindset. For teachers like myself, who work to emphasize the significance of a war far too often overlooked, the concern now is whether we can keep the public interest now that we have had the opportunity to temporarily seize it. Fortunately, I believe that we can.
Courses, museums, and public events around the country last year brought the war back to the public’s attention. In and out of the classroom, people were shown how the war set America on the path to become a global superpower by the end of the next world war, how present conflicts in the Middle East were shaped, and how once hopeful postwar attempts to build a lasting peace failed to make “The War to End All Wars” live up to its lofty name. We still have the public’s renewed interest in the Great War, but now we have to keep it. This is indeed doable, especially with so much information produced for last year and the ever-improving technology to bring it into the classroom and share it with the general public. We have the momentum now to continue pushing the relevancy of this event over a hundred years later, and one way to do that is to expand the scope with which we understand the war’s impact.
Much of what has been studied thus far about WWI relates to the fighting in Europe and the impact of U.S. entry into the conflict. While this is, of course, vital to our understanding of the history and impact of the war, we must remember to emphasize the “world” in World War I. Though for most, the first thoughts one has of WWI conjure up images of troops huddled in muddy trenches along the western front, fighting occurred in the Pacific, Africa, and the Middle East, soldiers and support flowed into Europe from every other inhabited continent as the war escalated, and conflicts in Latin American and the Caribbean, such as the U.S. occupation of Haiti, were directly and indirectly connected to the events unfolding in Europe.
Few if any portions of the world were left untouched by this conflict, which makes understanding the Great War and its impact an all the more daunting task, but that also means that, even a hundred years later, there are a lot more stories left to tell.
Chris Davis is writing his PH.D. dissertation is on the role of American missionaries in Haiti in shaping the U.S. occupation there (1915-1934). World War I is a key factor in understanding why America intervened in Haiti in 1915