When History Isn't History: Legacies of the Great War

Marching toward the Battle of the SommeRegrettably for humankind, the “War to End All Wars” did not live up to that hopelessly hopeful appellation. In fact, most historians will tell you that it and the treaty that ended it, were the chief causes of the Second World War which remains the only war in human history to surpass it in the cost of human life.

As you will have heard by now, over the next four or so years, the world will be commemorating the hundred year anniversaries of the events of what has come to be known—exactly because it could not measure up to that overly optimistic sobriquet—World War I.

And those events are truly staggering in their wholesale brutality and, above all, their utter senselessness. If any war could have been easily avoided, it is this one. It began as little more than schoolyard-style posturing. The problem was that the boys doing the chest-thumping happened to have at their command the most efficient killing machines the world had ever known and were itching to try them out. The tangle of allegiances among the major and minor players ensured only that the war would be fought on a heretofore unthinkably epic scale. So swords were rattled and 17 million men, women and children died. 17,000,000. That is the population of Harris County multiplied by four.

So, maybe you think this is all very sad and worth remembering, but it really doesn’t effect you. It's history, right?. Actually, it does. A lot of things we think of as strictly modern came to be because of the war. Reconstructive plastic surgery as we know it was the necessary response to the thousands of soldiers returning home mangled beyond recognition. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (though at the time it was called "shell shock") was first identified as a true medical condition. Blood banks were first organized in military hospitals during the war.

But for every good that came of the Great War, one can name ten consequences we would all be better off without. Consider just these: 

• One hundred years later, unexploded shells are still being found along what was the Western Front. In fact, it is so common, it has a name: the Iron Harvest. Belgian and French soldiers work full time collecting and destroying those shells.

• Six million soldiers never received proper burials because their bodies have never been found. 6,000,000. The Tombs of the Unknowns, here and across Europe, emerged from the sense of cosmic injustice felt by an English Army chaplain, who had said more prayers than he could count over men from whom the war had taken not only their

Passchendaele Cemetery

 lives, but their identities, and whose families were denied even the meager consolation of a marked grave on which to place their grief.

• A great deal of the ethnic tension and ongoing violence in the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere were greatly exacerbated, if not born, in the haphazard repartitioning that marked the Treaty of Versailles.

• No one can say definitively that Adolf Hitler's experiences during the war and the disillusionment with the regimes that fought it made him the hate-filled monster he became, but by his own estimation, it did.

Harris County Public Library invites you to learn more about this conflict that in many ways continues, not only in geopolitical conflicts, but--whether you realize it or not--in the way you see the world and live your life. Still don’t believe me? The next time you have a chat or go “over the top,” you’ll know that the very words in your mouth come to you from the trenches of the war that did not end all wars.

Coming Soon: In October, Harris County Public Library and many other libraries across southeast Texas will be participating in Gulf Coast Reads: On the Same Page, an annual event focused on bringing people together through reading and discussing a common book. This year’s selection is Remember Ben Clayton by Stephen Harrigan whose plot hinges on the death of a young Texan who was lost in Great War and the sculpture commissioned by his father to commemorate him.

Below are just some World War I-related materials in HCPL’s catalog.

good reads http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/9884.Best_World_War_I_Fiction
All Quiet on the Western Front / Erich Maria Remarque 
And Quiet Flows the Don / Mikhail Sholokhov 
August 1914 / Alexandr Solzhenitsyn 
Ashenden / W. Somerset Maugham 
Birdsong / Sebastian Faulks 
The Daughters of Mars / Thomas Keneally 
The Fall of Giants / Ken Follett 
A Farewell to Arms / Ernest Hemingway 
Fear / Gabriel Chevallier 
The Good Soldier / Ford Madox Ford 
In Pale Battalions / Robert Goddard 
Journey to the End of the Night / Louis-Ferdinand Céline
One of Ours / Willa Cather 
Parade’s End / Ford Madox Ford
The Regeneration Trilogy / Pat Barker: RegenerationThe Eye in the DoorGhost Road 
The Return of the Soldier
/ Rebecca West 
A Sailor of Austria: In Which, Without Really Intending to, Otto Prohaska Becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empire / John Biggins 
A Soldier of the Great War / Mark Helprin 
A Very Long Engagement / Sebastien Japrisot

The Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and its Violent Climax / Joseph E. Persico 
The First World War / John Keegan
Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography / Robert Graves
The Great War and Modern Memory / Paul Fussell 
http://hcpl.ent.sirsi.net/client/en_US/http:/search/results/?ln=en_US&q=... ">The Guns of August / Barbara W. Tuchman
The Harlem Hellfighters / Max Brooks  In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign / Leon Wolff 
Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten World War / Richard Rubin 

The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century / David 

Reynolds Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age / Modris Eksteins

The Zimmermann Telegram / Barbara W. Tuchman