Lost Civilizations and Found adventures:
The Centennial to End All Centennials
Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed, by John F. Ross (2014). HB
Undertones of War, by Edmund Blunden (1928.) Penguin Classics, 2000. PB
This year we are celebrating the horrific milestone of the centennial of America’s entry into World War I. World War I is possibly the most important war in history, though ironically now it is largely forgotten. The Great War, as it was called them, was the first global war and the first modern war, with updated weaponry and and tactics. It was so brutal that still to this day, already a century on, some of its battlefields which suffered unbelievable artillery shelling look like moonscapes. The casualty rate was so high (over thirty-eight million) it was staggering and the ways to die so new and scientific it was nightmarish, which also led to the desire to create viable international law and governance, put limits on warfare and outlaw the use of some of the most destructive technologies, and charge those who violate these rules with war crimes. This is also was why it was called the War to End All Wars. No one thought we would be stupid enough to do it again. Intellectuals like H. G. Wells vainly devoted the entire end of his life attempting to prevent anything like it from occurring again.
Though every student has been forced to read the remarkable All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, and we all know classics such as A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway, as well as generic World War overviews, I wanted to mention a few more obscure books.
First, let’s give a nod to the importance of maps. I love maps. I grew up reading my grandfather’s immense collection of National Geographic magazines. He had a complete set as a lifelong subscriber, going back into the 19teens. I read the articles (which was one place I learned about foreign cultures and ancient civilizations, and hence sparked my love of history and archaeology), but my favorite things were the maps. They had the best maps in the world. Beautiful, detailed, glorious maps full of all the exotic names a kid could ever imagine. So, when reading about a war, I also always consult maps. Whether you use a generic atlas, a more specific time of overview atlas like the Anchor Atlas of World History, or a focused book such as Mapping the First World War or A Military Atlas of the FIrst World War, it will be greatly beneficial. You can follow the action country by country, city to city, river by mountain, site by site.
One of the most amazing aspects of World War I was the introduction of air war. Flight was a new thing to the human race and we quickly adapted it to our favorite past time. I realize that we have had early attempts at flight from the ancient Chinese (possibly even Egyptians and Incas) and most famously pondered by Leonardo Da Vinci, however, focusing on modern aeroplanes a moment, we see the first zeppelins being built in 1899 and then the Wright Brothers taking flight in 1903. So, it was a short decade from when we first made it off the ground until we had the Red Baron and Snoopy battling it out overhead. That is rather astounding. There are many books to recommend on the famous aerial wars of WWI, but one of the most recent and exciting reads is the story of the hero who took on the Red Baron and inspired an entire generation to take to the skies: Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed, by John F. Ross. This is a tale of larger than life heroes, of a man who took experimental “deathtraps” into the air and pushed them far beyond their limits to create a whole new style of transportation and warfare. People like Rickenbacker, more than any others, inspired the genre of air combat pulps, such as G-8 and his Battle Aces which arose in the decade following the Great War. Of course these books featured every form of outlandish menace, from flying batmen and dragons to zombies and werewolves, but the core concept of the battling biwing aces became one of our greatest modern myths. In fact, if you ask any common person, aerial battles are the single most remembered aspect of World War I.
A good reading honorable mention goes to the brilliant historian Erik Larsen for his book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Anything by Larsen is worth reading, and the sinking of the Lusitania was one of the public outrages that helped push America into war. It also touches on the second great innovation of warfare that came out of World War I: submarines. For the first time both the sea and the air were as vital as the lands over which nations fought.
However, nothing can touch the brutal legacy of land war in World War I. If I were prone to bad puns, you might say the memory is entrenched in the human psyche. A legacy of Napoleonic tactics, armies in the First World War still faced each other in long lines and fired rifles at each other until the last man fell. To save a few lives and prolong the shooting, they literally buried their soldiers while still alive by digging vast lines of trenches. Sometimes these trenches and the barbed wired No Man’s Lands in-between did not move for years on end. Because of this, and the tendency for large pits dug in dirt to fill with rainwater and become mud, soldiers developed some horrifying diseases and infections, like trenchfoot and Legionnaire’s lung. Trench warfare is the second most iconic memory of WWI still to this day.
Let us focus our attention on one such trench-emtombed soldier, Edmund Blunden. Luckily for us, Blunden was a British writer and left us an autobiographical legacy of his travails called Undertones of War. He fought in some of the most infamous battles of the war, the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele, which he said was, “murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes.” Blunden was a poet and some of his passages seem to be poems he wrote during his time lying in trenches and later wove into the narrative. It is a moving book, haunting, but also very British. Especially given today’s sensibilities, there are some archaisms in style and perhaps some comments that may strike the modern reader wrong, but overall it is powerful read. Most importantly, despite the horrors of destroyed villages and endless deaths, day after month after year of trudging and even the poison gassings of friends, etc., Blunden’s spirit was not broken. He shows us,
“…You have now learned that the light is sweet, that a day in peace is a jewel whose radiances vary and frolic innumerably as memory turns it in her hand, infinitude of mercy.” Yes, despite everything that he endured, he could still state: “But it was a beautiful world even then.”
Our world is. One of my favorite definitions of poetry ever was written by William Wordsworth: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes it origin from emotions recollected in tranquility.” Perhaps this is why the poet Blunden’s book resonates so well even today and is considered the foremost autobiography of the war. It is one of the gifts of reading that we can travel in time, experience other people’s lives, and even live through horror and tragedy to emerge physically unscathed but emotionally and intellectually altered. This is the joy of recollecting in tranquility that writers like Blunden enable us to experience.