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  • Writer's pictureMichael Ireland

The Great War

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

Trenches of the 11th Cheshire Regiment at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, on the Somme, July 1916

How much you recall about World War I probably depends on how long it's been since you set foot in a classroom. The quality and breadth of that information depends on where and when you attended class, and perhaps more importantly who provided the lesson. Often overshadowed by the only other war to achieve the title of world war, the Great War, as it was known during its time, is a fascinating conflict that drastically altered warfare and the rules by which nations fight. Looking back more than a hundred years later it’s amazing how much has changed socially and politically, but shocking how little we’ve learned when it comes to resolving international disputes peacefully.

Growing up in the 90’s the history channel was an endless stream of background noise for my father’s weekend naps. The grainy black and white films of WWII battleship barrages and daring dogfights will forever be embedded in my memories. However, I barely recall seeing any programming about the first world war. In fact, I barely recall my high school's curriculum regarding the subject other than the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. After watching director Sam Mendes’ fantastic war film 1917, I was inspired to explore the subject deeper.

Cover of 1917 Film, released in 2019

1917 is beautiful, traumatic, graceful, and haunting. Following two British soldiers on a mission to deliver a message across enemy lines before tragedy befalls their comrades, 1917 is a very focused film that tells a deeply personal story in the midst of a global conflict. Comprised of extremely long shots that follow our protagonists beat by beat, the cinematography is wonderfully orchestrated and often visually stunning.

World War I: The Definitive Visual History, delivers exactly what the title promises. Chronicling every major conflict, political movement, and social upheaval prior to, during, and immediately after the war, this weighty book is packed with information. Filled with charts, maps, and images taken during the war, The Definitive Visual History is as complete and concise as possible. This book does an excellent job of illustrating the scope of the first world war, while also providing plenty of context and details.

World War 1 in 100 Objects, is a fascinating look at a variety of artifacts from the war. This carefully curated collection of objects include the iconic German pickelhaube, small bits of rusted barbed wire, and soldiers’ personal effects. These objects are used to take the reader on a tour of the war’s products and evolution. Framing the conflict from each individual piece, the book offers unique perspectives and insight into how and why the war was fought.

Cover of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry - four standing soldiers

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, provides a very intimate look into war and its effects. This collection highlights the contrast between the optimistic, patriotic poetry that inspired readers with nationalistic fever at the start of the war, and the shocked and disillusioned reflections that followed as its brutality dragged on. Capturing the experience from a personal perspective, this collection provides a deeper understanding of the emotional turmoil and suffering experienced during WWI.

A Higher Form of Killing looks at three specific events that altered the scope of war and introduced civilization to industrial conflict on a global scale. The first use of poison gas, aerial bombing of cities, and the sinking of the Lusitania by submarine are used to mark the beginning of weaponized mass destruction. Highlighting the horrors of mechanized warfare, A Higher Form of Killing identifies a turning point in human history and a move towards science as the most important weapon of all.

Finally, World War I Primary Sources is a great resource for anyone studying or writing on the war. Providing documents, letters, reports, and many other artifacts from the war, this collection of first hand accounts and contemporary commentary is a must for those seeking a closer look at the period.

Perhaps the foreignness of the time and the absence of living accounts has created a distance from the war that makes it seem like ancient history. But one hundred years is merely a grain of sand in the hourglass that is our shared history. Often misrepresented as a war without purpose, meaning, or direction, the origins of the conflict may seem inexplicable. The lessons appear opaque and perplexing. Too often framed as a worldwide madness that resists elucidation, the scars of the Great War remain. However, there continues to be a wealth of commentary, documentation, and historical research keeping the memory of this profound and tragic event alive in our collective conscience.

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