July 2, 1921 – Knox-Porter Resolution Officially Ends U.S. Involvement in World War I

On this day, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution officially ending United States involvement in World War I. The bill had been derived from two separate resolutions drafted by Senator Philander Knox and Representative Stephen Porter, both Republicans from Pennsylvania.

President Harding signed the resolution in Raritan, New Jersey, where he was playing golf with Senator Joseph S. Frehlinghuysen at the Raritan Valley Country Club. Harding walked back to the Frelinghuysen estate across the street, signed the document, and then returned to complete his round of golf.

President Warren G. Harding was an avid golfer

The Knox–Porter resolution also declared peace with the recently separated nations of Austria and Hungary. A U.S. House of Representatives history site reports that “By declaring peace, the U.S. hoped to consolidate its power in the postwar world and play a prominent role in the treaty-making process.”

April 25, 1919 – Herbert Hoover Explains the Importance of Feeding Europe to Defeat Anarchy (i.e., Bolshevism)

As the Hoover Institution points out, when the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, Herbert Hoover was named food administrator under President Woodrow Wilson:

His assignment was to enlarge the food supply of the United States and the Allies. This meant boosting food production and also promoting food conservation. ‘Food Will Win the War’ was Hoover’s slogan. This was the moment when Hoover became a household name in America: To ‘Hooverize’ entered the vocabulary as a synonym for economize.”

At the conclusion of the war, Hoover was named principal executive of the Allied Supreme Economic Council. In the first nine months after the Armistice, Hoover organized the distribution of more than $1 billion in food relief for Europe. After the Treaty of Versailles came into effect, Hoover created a private agency to continue the relief work, delivering food and money for economic reconstruction to 21 countries for the next two years.

Herbert Hoover (right) poses in a publicity photo for postwar European relief in 1919.
National Archives & Records Admin

Part of Hoover’s motivation was “to stem the tide of Bolshevism.” On this day in history, Hoover wrote:

Of course, the prime objective of the United States in undertaking the fight against famine in Europe is to save the lives of starving people. The secondary object, however, and of hardly less importance, [is] to defeat Anarchy, which is the handmaiden of Hunger.”

January 29, 1919 – Official US Bulletin Published with Rules for Helping Disabled WWI Veterans

During World War I, some 224,000 soldiers suffered injuries, including approximately 100,000 who were discharged for psychological issues. The Library of Congress reports that by 1921, approximately 9,000 veterans had undergone treatment for psychological disability in veterans’ hospitals.

At the time, there wasn’t a government agency dedicated to veteran’s affairs, and responsibilities for veterans were scattered among several agencies. On January 29, 1919, this day in history, the US War Department and the Office of the Surgeon General published “Rules for the Discharge of Disabled US Soldiers.”

The document began by stating:

It is the policy of the War Department to retain, so far as practicable under military control, for the purpose of medical and surgical treatment (a) officers and soldiers suffering from acute diseases or acute exacerbations of chronic diseases or unhealed lesions; (b) officers and soldiers suffering from communicable diseases or who are ‘carriers,’ whose discharge would be a danger to the civil community; (c) officers and soldiers suffering from disabilities incurred in the line of duty which are correctible within their terms of service or enlistment; (d) officers and soldiers suffering from chronic or permanent disabilities incurred in the line of duty, which are susceptible of improvement by measures for mental or physical reconstruction designed to fit them for return to their homes, for the resumption of their former vocations, or, with their consent, for the industrial opportunities or the training courses provided by the Federal Board for Vocational Education.”

In spite of the government’s good intentions, as the Gilda Lehrman Institute points out:

. . . disabled veterans were overwhelmed with confusing paperwork to fill out. Many WWI veterans faced unemployment, poor housing conditions, and inadequate medical care. As a result, veterans and other Americans founded organizations like the Disabled American Veterans of the World War and the American Legion to support and fight for the rights of disabled veterans. Their efforts led Congress to establish the US Veterans Bureau in 1921, which was a precursor to the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

You can read the text of the official bulletin here.

October 29, 1923 – Republic of Turkey Proclaimed & Review of “The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East” by Eugene Rogan

The Great War, or World War I, took place not only in the two well-known main theaters of France (the Western Front) and in Russia (the Eastern Front), but also in several lesser known theaters such as Northern Italy, Serbia, Greece, and sub-Saharan Africa. Among the outer theaters, the war in the Middle East, directed against the Ottoman Empire, was the most significant in terms of strategy and in its lingering effects even today. Eugene Rogan, a professor of history at Oxford, has written a thorough overview of that conflict in The Fall of the Ottomans.


The war by the Entente Powers (England, France, and Russia) against the Ottoman Empire took place primarily on four fronts: (1) in eastern Anatolia, against the Russians; (2) on the Gallipoli peninsula, against the British Empire and, to a lesser degree, France; (3) in Mesopotamia [modern Iraq] against the British; and (4) in the Arabian Desert and Palestine, against the British and their quirky and only occasionally dependable allies, the Arabs.

The Ottomans were soundly beaten by the Russians in eastern Anatolia, and lost substantial territory to them. However, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist government in 1917, they voluntarily returned all the conquered land to the Ottomans!


The Ottomans handed the British a crushing defeat on the Gallipoli Peninsula after an enormous loss of life under execrable conditions for both sides. The battle was over control of the Dardanelles, the narrow strait in northwestern Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The hero of the monumental battle was the Turk, Mustafa Kemal, who later became “Ataturk,” the father of modern Turkey. Interestingly, Rogan attributes the British decision to attempt to “force the straits” more to Lord Kitchener than to Churchill, who took most of the blame.

Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener

The Ottomans also trounced the British invasion of Mesopotamia at first, surrounding and capturing the entire British force at Kut al-Amara. However, the British launched a second invasion up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which succeeded in capturing Bagdad, although efforts to rescue the first invasion force were unavailing.

The final defeat of the Ottomans was effected by the British invasion from Egypt, through the Sinai, and then up through Palestine and Syria. The British were aided by the Hashemite tribe of Arabs from Mecca, who conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula (but not Medina). The British conducted a war of movement, and the Ottomans were never able to establish a defensive line. The destruction of the Ottoman army in Syria forced them out of the war. The fall of Aleppo, the final battle of the war, took place on 26 October 1918, just a few days before Germany signed the Armistice on the Western Front.

Rogan is excellent at relating this complicated story, working in the political considerations that affected the battleground decisions. For instance, the stalemate on the Western Front was what induced Kitchener and Churchill to sponsor the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, and the disaster at Gallipoli caused the British to stray too far from their base of supply in Mesopotamia, resulting in the loss of several divisions at Kut.

Australian troops charging Turkish trenches at Gallipoli

Australian troops charging Turkish trenches at Gallipoli

Rogan also emphasizes the role religion played in many aspects of the war. Because the Ottoman Sultan was also the caliph – not only the head of government of the Empire, but also the spiritual head of all Muslims, his German allies urged him to call for jihad, for all Muslims to go to war in support of the caliph against the infidel British, French, and Russians. The British were terrified that their Muslim subjects in India would answer the call. The French also were concerned because of their colonies in North Africa. In the event, there were relatively few desertions to the Ottoman side. Fortunately for the British, the Hashemite rulers of central Arabia (the Hijaz) feared the Turks and were inveigled into an alliance with the British. As rulers of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Hashemites seemed to count as much or more to Muslim Arabs than the Turkish Sultan, and the jihad never materialized.

Religion also played a major part in the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians, a group of Christian subjects who had little loyalty to their Turkish overlords. Much has been written about the “Armenian Genocide,” and Rogan comes down squarely on the side of those who say the Turks systematically attempted to exterminate that ethnicity by executing the young men and rounding up the women, children, and elderly and marching them to the Syrian desert with scanty supplies and little or no protection from Arab and Kurdish marauders. Even deniers of the genocide acknowledge that between 600,000 and 850,000 Armenians perished because of war time activities. Armenian historians put the number closer to between 1 million and 1.5 million. In addition, the Ottoman regime accused Assyrian Christians of collaboration with the Entente Powers, and 250,000 out of a total population 620,000 were killed during the war.

Armenians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Turkish soldiers. Kharpert, Armenia, Ottoman Empire, April, 1915

Armenians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Turkish soldiers. Kharpert, Armenia, Ottoman Empire, April, 1915

Arab and Kurdish marauders were a significant force in the rural areas of the Ottoman Empire. They preyed not only on the Armenians, but on stragglers from all the armies, whether Ottoman, Indian, or European. They were so dangerous and unruly that when an Ottoman garrison in Palestine surrendered to the British, the British allowed the garrison to keep their arms during their march to internment for protection against the local tribesmen.

During the course of the war, the British entered into several agreements with various parties (e.g., the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration) concerning the disposition of Ottoman lands at the conclusion of hostilities. The Russians were promised eastern Anatolia and Constantinople; the French were promised what is now Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon; the Hashemites were promised “all the Arab lands”; and the world’s Jews were promised “a homeland…in Palestine.” Obviously, not all these promises could be kept. The results of these overlapping promises and betrayals are still being felt today.


The Ottomans fared very badly at the Paris Peace Conference. Rogan asserts that “the Ottomans ultimately fell more as a result of the terms of the peace than of the magnitude of their defeat.” Virtually the entire empire was divided up and distributed to the victorious Entente Powers and even a few scraps were given to the Italians and Greeks, who “piled on” at the end once it was clear who would win.

In May 1919, Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, was ordered to supervise the demobilization of the Ottoman troops in central Anatolia. He chose to disobey those orders, and mounted a resistance movement, the Turkish National Movement, centered on the city of Ankara. Rogan writes:

By 1922, after an intense war on three fronts—against the Armenians in the Caucasus, the French in Cilicia, and the Greeks in western Anatolia—the Kemalists achieved total victory over the foreign armies in Turkey.”

The boundaries of the modern Turkish state (basically, Anatolia plus a littoral in Europe near Istanbul) were now set. The Turkish Grand National Assembly then voted to abolish the Ottoman Sultanate and establish a (sort of) democracy. On October 29, 1923, the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed. Kemal became known as “Ataturk,” which translates as “father of the Turks.”

Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal

The Turks were not able to reclaim the European or Arab portions of the Ottoman Empire. The boundaries of the modern states of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Arabia were set at the Paris Peace Conference. The disasters attendant to that process are nicely set forth in David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace. The Hashemites were granted control of most of the Arabian Peninsula, but they lost it in a war with Ibn-Saud, who founded modern Saudi Arabia.

Many Americans have a modest understanding of the war against the Ottomans, arising from such excellent motion pictures as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gallipoli,” and “The Light Horsemen,” which are fairly accurate although superficial. I would thoroughly recommend reading Rogan’s book before seeing or re-seeing any of those films in order to put the events portrayed into a broader context.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Published by Basic Books, 2015

September 3, 1918 – End of the Battle of Amiens – Turning Point of World War I

After the October, 1917 revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks promised to deliver “Peace, Bread, and Land” to the Russian people. To that end, on October 26, 1917, Lenin publicly issued a “Decree of Peace” which proposed an immediate withdrawal of Russia from World War I.

Lenin’s lieutenant, Leo Trotsky, was sent to the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk to negotiate a separate peace treaty with Germany, which was signed on March 3, 1918.

With fighting now discontinued on the Eastern Front, German soldiers and equipment were freed up to join the battle on the Western Front before American reinforcements could arrive. Their goal was to push the Allies back to the English Channel and off the mainland, but the effort was blocked at Amiens, just 40 miles from the Channel.

The Battle of Amiens, lasting from August 8 to September 3, 1918 was the opening phase of the Allied offensive that ultimately led to the end of the First World War.

On August 8, Allied forces consisting of Australians, Canadians, French and British all fighting together, engaged the Germans at Amiens with a ferocious artillery bombardment followed by waves of infantry. The tank attack orchestrated by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front, was 20 miles wide and was a complete surprise to the Germans, some of whom were captured while still having breakfast.

Allied tank at Amiens

As the UK Week reported:

. . . catching the Germans off-guard, Allied troops advanced eight miles, caused 27,000 casualties and took 12,000 German troops prisoner – all in the first day. 

According to The Guardian, the Allies swept through Amiens ‘with such speed that some German officers were captured while eating their breakfast.’

The offensive continued for the next three days, but ‘disorganisation and stiffening German resistance limited the advance’, and the Allies ended the battle, says the site of US TV network History.

‘Nevertheless, the offensive dealt a fatal blow to the German cause.’

The Independent says the the battle destroyed the ‘morale of many in the German high command, convincing them the War could not be won.”

German General Erich Ludendorff later described it as “the blackest day of the German army in the history of the War.”

By September 2, the Germans were forced to abandon the line of the Somme and retreated all the way to the Hindenburg Line.

The battle ultimately resulted in 46,000 Allied casualties and as many as 75,000 German losses, including those taken prisoner.

A crowd of German prisoners taken by the British Fourth Army in the Battle of Amiens, near Abbeville

As a UK Government history blog observed:

Many French historians regard this battle as the turning point in the war. For Germany, it came at the same time as a burgeoning domestic crisis, exacerbated by the British naval blockade preventing imports to Germany. The influenza pandemic that would ultimately be responsible for more deaths than the war, further weakened the German forces and civilian population. For the Central Powers, there was no hope of a powerful, previously uncommitted ally joining their side with fresh supplies of men and materiel equivalent to the United States joining the Entente powers. The last country to join the Central Powers was Bulgaria in 1915.”

April 25, 1915 – WWI Allied Troops Land in Gallipoli

One of the best-known battles of World War One was the Gallipoli Campaign, which resulted in approximately 250,000 casualties on each side.

Early in the war, Britain assumed that the Ottoman Empire did not pose a significant military threat, and therefore could be ignored until the European portion of the war was finished.  But the war in France quickly ground to a stalemate as both sides erected defensive lines of multiple trenches stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea.

The British could not see a way through without coming from Germany’s rear.  The British Secretary to the War Council, Maurice Hankey, articulated the subsequent British policy that “Germany can perhaps be struck most effectively, and with the most lasting results on the peace of the world through her allies, and particularly through Turkey.”

Turkey was thought to be particularly vulnerable because its capital and only really large city, Istanbul, lay directly on the Sea of Marmara, an offshoot of the Mediterranean. The British reasoned that if they could get a few of their large battleships into the Sea of Marmara, they could obliterate the city in a few days. British battleships were armed with guns that fired shells 15 inches in diameter and weighed about 2000 pounds each.

A major problem was that the entrance to the Sea of Marmara from the Mediterranean was the 38-mile-long strait, the Dardanelles, which is no more than 4 miles wide and less than one mile wide in spots and which had been heavily mined by the Turks. Moreover, the forbidding heights of the Gallipoli Peninsula overlook the strait. The British battleships could not get through the Dardanelles without removing the mines, and British minesweepers were vulnerable to Turkish artillery fortified on the heights of Gallipoli. Thus it was necessary to mount a land based attack on the Turkish army that was entrenched on the heights.

Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, tried to argue for a combined attack by the army and navy; a purely naval attack would merely provide the Turkish artillery with an opportunity to make literal the concept of “turkey shoot.” But the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, declined to provide any troops for Churchill’s navy; he felt they were needed in Europe. Thus Churchill was forced to do his best with the navy, and the inevitable disaster ensued.

At dawn on this day in history, April 25, 1915, Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula. General Sir Ian Hamilton, commanding the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, decided to make two landings, placing the British 29th Division at Cape Helles and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) north of Gaba Tepe in an area later dubbed Anzac Cove. The troops landed on the beaches below the entrenched Turks on the heights, but were never able to scale the cliffs. More than 16,000 Anzacs died trying to break out of the beachhead.

ANZAC charge at Gallipoli

As the UK Imperial War Museum reports:

Trench warfare quickly took hold, mirroring the fighting of the Western Front. Casualties mounted heavily and in the summer heat conditions rapidly deteriorated. Sickness was rampant, food quickly became inedible and there were vast swarms of black corpse flies. In August a new assault was launched north of Anzac Cove. This attack, along with a fresh landing at Suvla Bay, quickly failed and stalemate returned.”


A view of ‘V’ Beach, Cape Helles, Gallipoli, taken from SS River Clyde, via UK Imperial War Museum

On November 22, 1915, the British decided to cut their losses and evacuate the troops. Planning moved quickly and efficiently. The evacuation began on December 15, with 36,000 troops withdrawn over the following five nights. The last party left in the early hours of December 20 from Suvla Bay. British and French forces remained at Cape Helles (the rocky headland at the southwesternmost tip of the Gallipoli peninsula), until January 8-9, 1916.

Gallipoli had been a costly failure for the Allies: 44,000 soldiers died trying to wrest the peninsula from the Ottomans. Among the dead were 2779 New Zealanders – about a sixth of those who fought on the peninsula. Victory came at a high price for the Ottoman Empire, which lost 87,000 men during the campaign.

As The History Channel online observes:

The invasion had been scuttled by incompetence and hesitancy by military commanders, but, fairly or unfairly, Churchill was the scapegoat. The Gallipoli disaster threw the government into crisis, and the Liberal prime minister was forced to bring the opposition Conservatives into a coalition government. As part of their agreement to share power, the Conservatives wanted Churchill, a renegade politician who had bolted their party a decade earlier, out from the Admiralty. In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post.”

Historian Warren Dockter noted:

. . . it is worth remembering that Churchill was only the primary architect of the naval aspects of the operation. The beach landing strategy came from Lord Kitchener and Ian Hamilton. There were strategic benefits elsewhere from keeping the Ottoman Army occupied at Gallipoli. For instance, the Turks were never able to mount a successful attack on the Suez Canal. More importantly, there were long-term benefits as well. The campaign highlighted the weaknesses of inter-service and international cooperation in 1915, teaching Churchill and others valuable lessons in time for the Second World War.

Of course, some of the blame must be laid at Churchill’s feet, and Churchill realised that. He accepted his fate and left government to command a battalion on the Western Front. The experience tested his character and his judgment, but ultimately made him a better leader.”

December 6, 1917 – USS Jacob Jones Torpedoed – First U.S. Destroyer Ever Lost to Enemy Action

During service in World War I, the American destroyer USS Jacob Jones was torpedoed and sunk off the Scilly Islands, England on Dec. 6, 1917. Out of the 110 men on board the ship, 64 lost their lives. The Jacob Jones was the first U.S. destroyer ever to be lost to enemy action.

USS Jacob Jones

A month after war broke out between the US and Germany on April 6, 1917, the Jacob Jones departed Boston for Europe. Ten days later, Jacob Jones arrived at Queenstown, Ireland, and began patrolling and escorting convoys in waters off the United Kingdom.

On December 6, 1917, Jacob Jones departed Brest, France, to return to Queenstown, Ireland. She sighted a torpedo wake at a thousand yards and maneuvered to escape, but the torpedo struck her starboard side three feet below the water line, rupturing her fuel oil tank. As the stern sank, the depth charges exploded and the commander ordered all life rafts and boats launched and the ship abandoned. Only eight minutes after being struck by the torpedo, the Jacob Jones sank with 2 officers and 62 men still onboard.

USS Jacob Jones sinking off the Scilly Islands, England, after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-53. Photographed by Seaman William G. Ellis. Smithsonian Institution Photograph.

The ship’s survivors floated on rafts, boats, and debris in frigid north Atlantic waters off the southwest coast of England. Throughout that night and into the next morning, British ships conducted rescue operations. Almost all of the survivors suffered from shock and exposure at the time they were rescued.

The USS Jacob Jones had been named in honor of Commodore Jacob Jones (1768–1850), an American hero of the War of 1812.

Portrait of Commodore Jacob Jones by Thomas Sully

The name wasn’t so lucky, however. A second Jacob Jones destroyer, DD-130, was completed at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey, in February, 1918. It too was sunk, but during World War II this time. A German U-Boat struck that second Jacob Jones on February 28, 1942.

September 25, 1915 – Beginning of the Battle of Loos in WWI

The Battle of Loos, which took place on the Western Front of WWI from September 25 to October 13, 1915, is notable for being the first time the British Army used gas as a weapon.

Previously, the British had condemned the use of gas on the battlefield by the Germans, but decided to adopt it themselves as they advanced on Loos. However, the British suffered blowback, literally, as the UK National Army Museum reports:

The gas was released from cylinders by special units from the Royal Engineers and hour before the infantry attacked.

Unfortunately, the weather proved fickle for the British and in some places the gas blew back into their trenches. In other parts of the line, the gas lingered in no-man’s land causing confusion.”

British troops advance through the gas at the Battle of Loos. Public Domain

The attacks ground to a halt and by September 28 the Germans had pushed the British back to their starting points.

The British suffered over 60,000 casualties including three major generals. An online war history site notes:

In exchange for these heavy losses, the British had inflicted around 20,000 casualties on the Germans. They had taken Loos but little more. The great pincer movement to link up with Joffre and the armies of France failed.”

The introduction of gas warfare in 1915 created an urgent need for protective measures. The British wore hoods like this at Loos, via UK National Army Museum

July 31, 1917 – Third Battle of Ypres Begins During WWI

The Third Battle of Ypres in the Belgian province of Flanders, also known as Passchendaele after the village and the ridge surrounding it, was a controversial battle on the Western Front during World War I. It resulted in enormous casualties – some 310,000 for the Allies, and some 260,000 on the German side, ending in an Allied advance of only five miles.

Illustration by Meilan Solly for Smithsonian Magazine

The offensive was based on the desire of British commander Sir Douglas Haig to destroy the German submarine bases on the Belgian north-east coast. 

The UK National Army Museum reports that Ypres “was probably the most dangerous area for British soldiers on the whole Western Front. Surrounded by the Germans on three sides and overlooked by high ground, it was very vulnerable to German fire.”

But the most formidable problem came from the weather. On this date, it began to rain heavily, turning the ground into a muddy mess. As the UK Telegraph describes it:

Days into the attack, Ypres suffered the heaviest rain for 30 years. Tanks were immobilised, rifles were clogged up and the shelter usually created by shells turned to swamps. Many men, horses and pack mules drowned in the quagmire.”

(Although over 100 British tanks participated in the attack, the mud cancelled out any tactical advantage they might have conferred, as they “were not especially well-suited to operating in waist-high mud.”)

The UK Army Museum website contends that the weather affected the Allies more than the Germans, since they were on high ground and did not have to cross the contested territory below. They note: “In particular, the rain made supplying the guns, and moving them forward, virtually impossible.” 

Battleground at Passchendaele – credit Wikimedia Commons

After three months, one week and three days, the Allies finally recaptured the village of Passchendaele, leading Haig to call off the offensive and claim victory.

The German submarine bases on the coast had not been captured. In his Memoirs of 1938, Lloyd George wrote:

Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign ….”

Credit: UK Telegraph

July 28, 1914 – Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia and World War I Ensues

One month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand while he was visiting Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on this date in history. Other countries bound by treaties followed suit. But what actually caused the war and how did our understanding of it evolve over time?

The Long Shadow is an extremely ambitious book that, as its subtitle avers, attempts to trace the influence of the First World War to the present day. It is divided into two halves: (1) legacies (direct outcomes of the war) and (2) refractions (changes in the ways in which the war was perceived). It is difficult to summarize because its scope is so vast. In fact, it is so loaded with facts and background and insights and references that one can lose sight of the major thesis of the book, which is a shame, because it is an important one.

Reynolds employs a number of broad themes (nationalism, imperialism, capitalism, etc.) not only to document the wide range of effects of the war. He also illustrates the ways in which the history of WWI was interpreted, first of all to serve the social and political agendas of the combatants at the time, and second, to readjust the understanding of the conflict in light of WWII. It is not revolutionary of course to claim that history is contingent, or that it is used by those in power for their own ends. But such an analysis is uncommon to most accounts of WWI, which focus on specific treaties, leaders, social movements, and battles. Similarly, such an evidentiary approach is generally taken to explain the factors contributing to the short hiatus between WWI and WWII.


Reynolds, on the other hand, wants to show us exactly how the historical reconstruction of WWI – i.e., the deliberate formation of the collective memory of the war – was used by each country to reshape what happened into a narrative that could justify not only what came before the war, but what came next. [For example, given the casualties of just one battle, that of the Somme (estimated to be some 600,000 on each side), such sacrifices had to be vindicated in light of the fact that another world war came just twenty-five years later.] Reynolds is making a broader point than “the victors write the history.” At its simplest, that precept can mean only that reports on the outcome of battles tends to be self-serving.

Some British participants in the Battle of the Somme

Some British participants in the Battle of the Somme

Reynolds uses his multifaceted approach to take us away from the material aspects of the conflict, to see how the perceptual and ideological lenses informing its history led to quite different (and selective) memories of that time. The meanings thus generated have gotten embedded into the public consciousness, whether factual or not. Especially when narratives are couched as “histories,” a certain authority or legitimacy is conferred upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn changes popular reactions to events.

His book is important because, while many such analyses of the social construction of memory have been made of other seminal events, such as the Civil War or the Holocaust, most books on WWI focus stay down in the trenches, so to speak.


One of the important points Reynolds makes about the construction of WWI history relates to the nature of the source documents used, particularly right after the war. When dealing with events that took place over a variety of countries in which different languages are spoken, it is critical to get information from all parties, both the vanquished and the triumphant. But this was not the case after WWI. Reynolds writes:

…in the 1920s and 1930s most scholars of the origins of the Great War relied heavily on German materials. These served as the basis for the influential works of American revisionist historians….”

As a result of using the fragmentary German documents (many of them had been destroyed, falsified, or removed by the Russians and unavailable until after Stalin’s death), a massive legacy of disinformation ensued, foremost of which was the belief promulgated that “nobody wanted war” in 1914; that the precipitating crisis was “a gigantic muddle”; and that the nations involved “slithered over the brink into the broiling cauldron” quite blindly. By the 1930s it was hard, Reynolds contends, even for Great Britain to believe that Germany had played a major role in bringing about the war. (Certainly, and most unfortunately, Germans themselves believed the selective information they received that the war was a “defensive” one, for which they therefore suffered unfairly.) Even now, some respected scholars argue that the nations of Europe “sleepwalked” into the conflict. [See, for example, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, and reviewed here.]

In fact, the “sleepwalking” theme has had amazing staying power, for a variety of reasons explored by Reynolds. The upshot, however, is that the dominant narrative of WWI – i.e., a war started by “a succession of accidents”; “a family quarrel among the crowned heads of Europe”; senseless carnage informed by no clear war aims, is absolutely still embedded in public consciousness. But it is, much to the chagrin of historians, certainly not the case. [See, for example, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings, reviewed here, and The War That Ended Peace by Margaret McMillan, reviewed here. Both of these scholars bemoan the way in which Germany’s large role in the genesis of the war has gotten obfuscated over time.]


Reynolds goes further to suggest that part of the power of the revisionist histories can be attributed to a major cultural development, and that was the technological advancement of artistic media – especially in the form of sound movies and later television. This changed the game of memory construction altogether. He credits the breathtaking power of movies, especially because of their novelty and their emotional impact, for creating an iconography of enduring images and establishing a narrative pattern that changed the way everyone remembered the war. (For example, many believe that the war was primarily fought in trenches, because of the overwhelming number of striking images of that phase of the war.) Reynolds even cites some historians as charging that “there were virtually two Western Fronts – the literary and the historical.”

Artistic creations focused on several recurring themes. In Europe, the predominant message was one of the horror of war, fought in muddy deprivation by young romantically heroic men fated to die meaningless deaths. Poems and paintings reinforced those images. In the U.S., by contrast, the war was portrayed as a great adventure, with American men as heroes, beloved by comrades and beautiful women alike, rescuing the desperate continent and “saving the world” for democracy.

Screen Shot 2014-01-25 at 7.47.01 AM

When the continent once again became roiled in war preparations, the European message especially was not very convenient, and needed to be rewritten.

In Germany in particular, the outcome of the war had to be refashioned. Thus, Germany used a very distorted picture of the unfairness of the reparations clause in the Treaty of Versailles to accomplish several goals: deflect attention from the fact that they imposed an even bigger reparations burden on France after its defeat by Germany in 1871; blame the reparations bill rather than an inept government for the failure of their economic policies after the War; and help promulgate the “stab in the back” myth that allowed the political takeover of a militaristic party to help restore Germany’s glory. The interwar government, worried about Bolshevism, never saw fit to mention to the public that British and American bankers provided funds to support a new German currency and helped restructure reparations payments at a lower level, backed by an international loan. Between 1924 and 1930, Reynolds points out, German borrowed almost three times what it paid in reparations. The interpretation of reality by Germany, however, was shaped to alter the terrain of popular knowledge in order to help legitimate the representation of Germany as an innocent victim, deserving of revenge.


Reynolds also warns us to guard against retrospective assessments. For instance, Neville Chamberlain is now reviled for having “appeased” Hitler at Munich, but at the time, Chamberlain was responding to the absolute “gut-wrenching fear” in Britain over the possibility of a war enhanced by aerial bombers. (Whereas England had always felt a modicum of security by virtue of its geographical isolation, the populace was in a panic over the idea that Germany (or other aggressors) could now reach them quite handily by air, and moreover, wreak havoc in a way that would make no distinction between combatants and civilians.) But once it became clear just what kind of evil was unleashed with Hitler, everyone in Britain was eager to disown Chamberlain’s policies, blaming Britain’s inaction on just that one man, and grabbing on to the lifesaver of Churchill’s outstanding oratorical mastery to reframe who the British were.

Neville Chamberlain after meeting with Hitler in Munich

Neville Chamberlain after meeting with Hitler in Munich

One other notable instance of WWI historical reconstruction highlighted by Reynolds pertains to the role of the U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson. It is interesting to hear a British scholar’s perspective about the effect of Wilson on world events subsequent to WWI. In America, Wilson has been white-washed in many ways (not least of which to cover up his vile racist attitudes and actions, not only domestically but with respect to his rejection of a “racial equality” clause for the League of Nations), and restyled in public memory to have been a man desperate to bring peace to the world. But by Reynold’s account, Wilson did the opposite, and was notably unpopular for it abroad. By lecturing Europe on the need for “self-determination” of minorities, he roiled up anticolonial agitators and alienated most of the other world leaders, who scoffed at him for his hypocrisy and excoriated him for not understanding the effects “his seductive words would set in motion.” In response to the hostility of the Allied leadership against Wilson for stirring up trouble without knowing what he was talking about, Wilson not only backed down, stating that he had spoken “without the knowledge that nationalities existed….” but acquiesced in the imperialist policies of his allies. That precipitated a backlash against Wilson throughout the world outside America by the people as well as their leaders, with disillusioned nationalists turning to communism. Reynolds argues, “Right across the colonial world, in fact, Leninism gained from Wilson’s shattered credibility.”

David Lloyd George, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson on their way to the Versailles Peace Conference, June 1919.

David Lloyd George, French prime minister Georges Clemenceau and US president Woodrow Wilson on their way to the Versailles Peace Conference, June 1919.

Discussion: Just as selective use of documents promulgate a certain view of what happened and why, the vivid use of images shape what people remember, or by their omission, what people forget. The ability to impose a view is what is at stake with the spate of new works by so many scholars in honor of the 100th anniversary of World War I. Reynolds reminds us that these histories will be far from value-free, and that history too exists within a complex ideological web. These narratives not only help define who we are and who we were, but are pedagogical, setting the stage for future actions. As Reynolds makes apparent, the memory of World War I is still being renegotiated, even now.

Evaluation: This book is by no means just a hermeneutical analysis of World War I interpretation. It is also a densely packed account of what happened during and after the war. But overarching the details is the theme that since “lessons from the last war would guide planning for the next,” what was contained in those lessons varied by country, ideology, and political agendas. Thus perceptions of what happened have changed over time. As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” We would do well to remember this as we confront the barrage of new histories coming out now on World War I, or indeed, on any subject.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2014