World War I Was Much More Than Trenches in France
via The National Interest web site
November 11, 2018—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—marked the centennial of the armistice concluding the First World War. Your humble correspondent traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, to offer remarks as part of “1918: Crucible of Conflict,” the centennial symposium at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. After two days of listening to learned commentators hold forth about sundry dimensions of the war, the armistice, and the interregnum between the world wars, it’s clear the Great War still casts a long cultural shadow.
Bottom line: history matters. A partial or garbled understanding of history means any guidance we distill from it is partial or garbled as well.
Faulty guidance is a real prospect. Ask the man on the street what the war was about, and in all likelihood he’ll reply with something about trench warfare. Soldiers huddled in muddy, miserable trenches under constant artillery bombardment represent the dominant image of World War I. And that comprises a major part of the story for sure. But why does our cultural memory obsess over trench warfare in France? The obvious reason for Americans is because that’s where American doughboys fought from 1917–1918. That was our war.
We tend to stress the combined bomber offensive against Nazi Germany, the landings in North Africa, Italy, and Normandy, and other American spheres of endeavor in World War II while scanting the horrific and arguably decisive fighting between German and Soviet armies. In the same vein it’s natural to remember what our soldiers, sailors, and airmen did in the Great War. These were sons and daughters of America.
It also makes sense to concentrate on France because the West is where the guns of August rang out in 1914 and where the Great War ended in November 1918. The German Army’s “Schlieffen Plan“ sent legions careening through Belgium into France before the offensive stagnated under stiffer-than-expected French and British resistance. The static fighting that constitutes the lore of World War I ensued. During the spring of 1918 the German Army launched a series of titanic offensives in hopes of breaking a French Army that verged on mutiny or driving the British Expeditionary Force into the sea before the United States could intervene in force. And France is where the Allies at last amassed enough combat power to puncture German lines at multiple points at the same time—letting them break through and compel Berlin to consent to the armistice we remember today. Beginnings and endings imprint themselves on the popular mind.
And then there’s the cultural dimension. France witnessed feats of heroism that helped forge the U.S. Army and Marine Corps into what they are today. Legendary figures such as General John J. Pershing made their names on the Western Front. Legendary figures from subsequent U.S. history—Harry S. Truman, George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur—made their debuts as junior officers. At the Battle of Belleau Wood in May-June 1918, American soldiers and marines blunted a German spearhead aimed at Paris—and helped prepare the ground for the Allied counteroffensive and victory. “Retreat, hell! We just got here,” proclaimed one ornery marine when urged to retreat before the German onslaught. Try not pumping your fist at that show of bravado.
Read the entire article on the National Interest web site.
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