Tuesday, June 14, 2011

History Lesson: World War I and Britain

I feel like I use my journalism degree all the time, but my history degree less often. I chose it as my major in high school and never wavered from it. Always a passion, it was also going to help me get into law school, but in the end just made me happy. Now, on occasion, and maybe only just for me, I want to use it.

In the course of my history education, from grade school through college, more time was always spent on America's role in, and the general impact of, World War II than on World War I. In my experience it was just never discussed and analyzed as much. And by comparison's sake, I don't really think we were impacted the same way in terms of resources and personnel. Why we were fighting WWII was also more clear: in the simplest form, it was because of Pearl Harbor. While WWI, in its simplest form, began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. And in 1914, and even today, not sure how much effect the death of an Austrian has on America.

The memorial to the residents of D.C. who fought in WWI.
The only WWI memorial on the Mall.

I began thinking of all this because the last British combat veteran of WWI recently died. Just several months after the last American veteran died. My knowledge of WWI finally went beyond what I learned from "All Quiet on the Western Front" and that awful scene in "Legends of the Fall," when I took a British history course my junior year of college. (Which was actually not a good class in large part due to a sub par professor, who happened to be a Duke grad. I'm not saying that was the reason he wasn't a good professor.)

But the one thing -- literally the one thing -- I remember from the course textbook was the effect the Great War had on Great Britain. They gave so many of their young men to The Cause that they effectively lost the equivalent of a generation's worth of leaders. Potential leaders in science, industry, literature, business, and politics -- gone. That still astounds me. Now, they've managed to do pretty well since then and not to be obvious, but it did let some females step up to the plate, too. (Hello, Margaret Thatcher.) But who knows what may have been achieved. What disease cured? What groundbreaking business formed? What literary masterpiece written? What world leader launched?

The summer after taking the course I went to London for summer school. The scars of the Second World War are everywhere, from the singed dome of St. Paul's to a plaque on a building explaining how it was rebuilt after the Blitz. But WWI and its effects are still seen, too, like in the Imperial War Museum.

I loved this museum not just because I love history, but because it was the first museum I visited where "home front" wasn't in reference to America. It presented the view of wars I thought I knew so much about, from a completely different perspective. And through each floor of exhibits, my earth shifted a little each time I saw the word "home," and knew it wasn't the home I knew. At one point you can step through a mock up of a trench. (Trench warfare is one of the most lasting legacies of the conflict.) While I'm sure the mock trench was nothing like the real thing, it still made its point: dark, tight, loud, and even smelly. An entire generation lost in these trenches, so far from their own home fronts? It is still unfathomable.

Today in Britain, veterans of all conflicts are remembered each November with remembrance poppies, which began as a way to honor the Great War's fallen. When I moved back to England after college, I was there for Remembrance Day and felt like the city was awash in paper poppies, including these outside Westminster Abbey. Resiliency, recovery, and remembrance, that's the British way.

One of my most favorite scenese from an episode of "Doctor Who" covers a lot of these points. (What could be more British than that?) It beautifully shows the sacrifices asked of the young men of Britain at that time, the hell they went through, and how they came out on the other side. (And the young man happens to be Sam from "Love Actually.")

It was to be "the war to end all wars." Oh how we all wish that were the case, that the 20th and 21st centuries weren't riddled with conflict after conflict after conflict. Especially as we've been fighting our own wars for a decade now. When all is said and done we don't yet know the final death toll, the final footprint on history. 100 years from now there will be an obituary on the last surviving member of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and who knows what his or her legacy will entail.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
-Laurence Binyon

1 comment:

  1. That was awesome. even brought a tear to my eye. We had a 20 year old from Stanley(Went to East Gaston where we all went too)in the Marines that was killed in action last Thursday. He is being buried in Arlington on the 28th. I assume section 60. I would love to see that part of Arlington. I loved the special they did on HBO about it. Love you! Amee



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