I care about World War I in the way I do because I was, for three years, thrust into the role of British schoolchild. I was 12 when we arrived in 1998, 15 when we left, a year older than my classmates because I didn’t know Latin or French or anything at all about the Battle of Hastings. I was barely aware of the Great War not because we hadn’t gotten that far in history class, but because America takes no great pains to mythologize a war in which we barely participated, which did not devastate our continent, which did not wipe out or irreparably scar most of our population. My first year in school, I had no idea why we had to have an assembly at 11am, oddly timed during morning break. My classmates all knew it was for a moment of silence. Why don’t we have that in the US?
British imports like “Downton Abbey” have surely done more to educate Americans about WWI than our common curricula. I’m not sure this is a problem, as all countries will adjust their lessons to form their own national consciences; I can’t make a strong case for amping up WWI history when there is so much American history that hasn’t yet made it into our mythology and/or national shame. One valuable take I read this week was from MIT News, wherein Professor Stephen Van Evera discusses the value in assigning blame to countries and leaders who instigated global conflict. Most notable was Germany’s insistence on innocence in WWI, and the propaganda that perceived innocence produced: “[These myths] were devised and spread by the Kriegsschuldreferat (War Guilt Office), a secret unit in the German foreign ministry.” Seriously, “War Guilt Office.” Germans and Europe as a whole did an about-face after WWII, infusing responsibility and a common education among the people: “By enabling a rough consensus among former belligerents on who was responsible for past violence these historians and schoolteachers played a large role in healing the wounds of the world wars and making another round of war impossible.” In general, more straightforward self-blame in our national curricula would certainly be beneficial for all countries, particularly Britain and the US (hello Imperialism, hello migrant caravan, for starters).
But I meant to just write about myself, my own bland history in which I self-mythologize as a misplaced girl who internalizes the Romance and misery of an era and buttons it up with wartorn poetry. I remember the ocean of graves at the Somme as truly sobering, even for bolshy English teens. I remember at least one classmate crying. I wrote a fairly bad sonnet series about the whole ordeal in college, which I am too embarrassed to self-publish. My fascination in WWI, or at least the culture and era surrounding it, is one of the strongest imprints from that period. I never liked “The Great Gatsby” because blasé Nick Carraway dismisses the war as some boring activity in the first couple of chapters, before I could even get to the real brutish behavior. How fucking dare he, when this poem exists:
Final stanza of “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918, killed in the final days of the war)
Also killed in the final days of the war was the American Everit Herter, whose letters and diary I found in a grad school class about finding inspiration through historical documents. The poem is little more than a reorganization of his blunt, illustrative diary, an indictment of false hope. Sitting in tragedy for a bit on Armistice Day/Veterans Day seems like the most appropriate celebration.
Our Best Bet: Everit Herter’s Diary, June 9, 1918
By Joelle Jameson
It is far too cold to write letters.
One can barely hold a pencil.
I have to talk to peasants
to find where we are headed.
They have the same story:
they are ready to stop fighting
— but our paltry trainload
of a thousand men
looks more like a million
to them, and seeing train
after train pass through
has grown their courage
to a dizzying height.
They have no idea
how many we are, but find
the exaggerated estimatee
very cheering. I have noticed
groups in cafes — in the streets — everywhere —
talking: it’s always “les Américains” this,
and “L’Amérique” that. They see us
as their best bet, and our troops do nothing
to meet their hopes, besides acting
as walking columns of cash,
not knowing the value
of the coins in their pockets.
Wine and pastry every day —
a fearful combination, I might add.
In the streets, where women in mourning
are distressingly evident, children follow
begging for sou-sous. Quite
the fearful combination.
We may win the war,
like an army of locusts
which leaves France victorious
but ruined. God knows
they are sufficiently ruined
without our assistance,
and victory is still
a roseate dream
in the dimmest distance.