The First World War

A Centennial Commemoration

On May 7, 1915, the war changed for America. The RMS Lusitania, a civilian liner, was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 1,198 lives, including 128 Americans. The Germans believed (with good reason) that the ship was bringing in munitions for the Allied war effort and so was a legitimate target. Whatever the propaganda and counterclaims, the end result was that the U.S. was outraged that Germany had killed 128 of its citizens: “Has this ceased to be a war of army against army and degenerated into a war against civilians and women and children, no matter of what nationality?” [May 15, 1915]. Even a year after the sinking we mentioned the “wholesale Lusitania murder.” Indeed, reading through the issues of 1916 and 1917 it is clear that U-boat warfare created a palpable fear in this country: “the pivotal point upon which depends the issue of victory or defeat” [June 2, 1917]. The Germans believed submarine warfare was justified. They saw themselves waging a war against a supposedly neutral country freely supplying their enemies with means to continue fighting while simultaneously choking off supplies for German civilians and the military. In any event, the U-boat campaign was certainly one reason the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

America had a tiny army in 1917 but it did have factories, a lot of them, and these swung into high gear producing weapons and food for America’s allies, and ships and trucks for moving men and matériel. The pace of all war-related production, particularly in shipping, became frenetic: “The Shipping Board is very busy—so busy that emblazoned on its banner is the admonition of Dr. Jewett—"Don't apologize, don't explain; let 'em holler, GET IT DONE !"”[April 6, 1918]. Scientific American joined in the war effort to push the issue: “It is for press and public to help now” [April 6, 1918]. The industrial landscape changed dramatically in the year and a half that America was at war. The meaning of the phrase “total war” becomes clearer, and a little unsettling, when you can read how every aspect of society and the economy was considered in the light of the war needs. Even food became a weapon in the war against the Central Powers: “It is a military necessity that each acre produce the maximum of human food” [August 10, 1918].

The massive expansion of manpower needs across the globe drained men from their normal employment and encouraged women to work in jobs where previously only men had worked. It was not unusual to see women working as farmers in Europe, in factories in America or as trolley conductors in Germany [July 3, 1915]. An editorial in the December 14, 1918, issue noted, “In nearly every line of work where women have been employed to relieve the labor shortage they have proved themselves as careful and painstaking as the men.” Yet at the same time, this sea change was seen as temporary. As soon as the war ended and troops began returning home our Washington correspondent looked with concern on the men about to be demobilized and subtitled his article “Getting the Jobless Man and the Manless Job Together” [December 21, 1918]. If this article seems to callously shrug off the service of the many women who worked hard for lower wages than their male co-workers in factories and offices, the social change occasioned by an influx of women to the workforce had not necessarily been a welcome one. Philip Gibbs, a war journalist who wrote Now it Can Be Told in 1920, right after the war, had this very critical comment on the upheavals to the social order: “The painted flapper was making herself sick with the sweets of life after office hours in government employ, where she did little work for a lot of pocket money.” One lasting result of the wartime disruption, though, was that women demanded a greater share in society: Voting rights were extended to women in Germany in 1918, the U.S. in 1920 and the U.K. in 1928. (It took another world war for French women to get those rights).

English women driving American tractors at night, plowing fields by electric light. Credit: Scientific American, April 13, 1918

The end of the war came as no surprise. By August 1918 America had 1.5 million troops in France and supplies pouring in for the Allies. Their armies were well-supplied with trucks, railway locomotives, airplanes, boots, field kitchens (and field bakeries for the Yanks), medical equipment, construction machines, tanks, radios, generators, machine guns, howitzers and shells, shells and more shells. The mass of men and supplies more than compensated for Russia’s early exit from the war after the Bolsheviks co-opted a revolution that had disposed of the Russian monarchy. The Germans and Austro–Hungarians had been fighting for four years and were running low on manpower and food at home. Germany in 1917 devoted a vast proportion—53 percent—of her net national product to military purposes. Military spending in the U.S. only rose to 13 percent of NNP by 1918; in this total war the Allies had the huge advantage of more population and larger economies, large proportions of which were co-opted by governments for wartime use. In the last phase of the war the Hundred Days Offensive drove the Germans out of France. The Armistice between the Allies and Germany took effect on November 11, at 11 A.M., a week after a disintegrating Austria–Hungary had given up.

Yet already the next horror visited on mankind was making an appearance. Medical officers for all the belligerents noted outbreaks of influenza among their troops. In the U.S. Army in France, Lieut. Samuel Bradbury (the author’s grandfather), noted an outbreak of flu in May and July 1918 and commented on the “explosive nature of the epidemic” [The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Vol. 156, 1918]. The October 19, 1918, SA Supplement carried a report from the July meeting of the Munich Medical Union noting the hallmark of the pandemic now being called “Spanish Influenza”: “persons under 30 years of age mainly fall victims to the disease.” By the end of 1919, 50 million people had died of the malady, a tragedy overshadowing the loss of military and civilian lives in the war. [The figure of 50 million comes from Jeffery K. Taubenberger (who has also written for Scientific American on influenza) and David M. Morens in Emerging Infection Diseases, January 2006.]

Why does First World War I still haunt us? Perhaps because the moral ambiguity of the conflagration keeps us from the certainty of an answer to the question “Whose fault was it?” and “Was it worth it?” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously said that it was a “war to end all wars.” The Victory Medal handed out to British, American and other Allied troops has, cast in bronze (or rather stamped) the phrase: “The Great War for Civilization.” Yet not only does the war seem to have been none of the above, another awful irony is that the children of that war went on to fight and die in larger numbers in the Second World War 20 years later.

Update on mediaeval warfare, 1917: French sappers use a stethoscope to listen for sounds of Germans mining or countermining under French trenches. Credit: Scientific American, June 9, 1917

The last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green of England, who served on an air base in the Women’s Royal Air Force, died in 2012. Is it time to put the past behind us? Not yet: the war was one of the most significant human-caused events, and the world today looks the way it does because of the Great War. Continued study of every aspect of the puzzle of that calamity can help us unravel the complexity of human society.

A short list of books and resources that I have particularly appreciated. This list represents only a minute fraction of the material available to the interested reader.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
By Christopher Clark
(Harper, 2013)
A masterfully nuanced dissection of European society and diplomacy that led up to the outbreak of war in 1914. The book leaves a vivid impression of the complexity of interaction combined with the belligerence in outlook and deed of individuals, countries and organizations. A recent BBC report in March 2014 quotes Michael Epkenhans, director of research at the German Armed Forces Center of Military History at Potsdam, on why the book is so popular in Germany: “Everybody has to be blamed for starting World War I, and not only the Germans.”

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War
Max Hastings
(Alfred Knopf, 2013)
A well-written overview of the causes and the first six months of the war.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson
(Doubleday, 2013)
An entertaining book about one of the most colorful characters in World War I, with frequent nods to the mess created by France and England after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915–1919
By Mark Thompson
(Basic Books, 2010)
An uneven (and unfortunately titled) work, but overall a lyrical and captivating look at the artistic, philosophical and military aspects of the war on the Italian front. (The Italians fought on the side of the Allies.)

The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front
By Peter Hart
(Pegasus, 2009)[2010?]
The Somme attack is considered the epitome of a callous and foolish waste of life, a bloody shambles usually blamed squarely on General Douglas Haig. Amid encyclopedic detail Hart helps bring the reader back to the original notion that the battle was fought to help save Verdun and the French army from collapse.

The Myth of the Great War: A New Military History of World War I
By John Mosier
(Harper, 2001)[2002?]
Mosier sidesteps decades of rhetoric and propaganda to produce a slim military history that has some interesting perspectives on the conduct of the war.

The First World War
By John Keegan
(Knopf, 1999)
A comprehensive look at the causes and conduct of the First World War: a good starting place.

The Guns of August
By Barbara Tuchman
(Presidio Press, 2004; first published 1962)
This very readable book won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so.

The Zimmerman Telegram
By Barbara Tuchman
(Random House, 1985; first published 1958)
Nicely written book on why the U.S. entered World War I.

Johnnie Gough, V. C.: Biography of Brigadier-General Sir John Edmund Gough, 1871–1915
By Ian F. W. Beckett
(Tom Donovan Publishing/Spellmount Publishers, 1989)
Written by a leading World War I historian, the book shows us how the military career and political outlook of one of the influential officers in the British Army was shaped by decades of experience in colonial warfare. Gough, A rising star, was killed by a sniper in France in 1915.

They Called It Passchendaele: The Story of the Third Battle of Ypres and the Men Who Fought in It
By Lyn Macdonald
(Penguin Books, 1993; first published in the 1970s)
Macdonald for awhile was the doyenne of history via personal narrative and interviews with many surviving veterans.

The Hazy Red Hell: Fighting Experiences on the Western Front 1914–18
Edited by Tom Donovan
(Spellmount, 1999)
Fifty accounts of the personal experience—occasionally humorous, usually unpleasant—of trench warfare.

Storm of Steel
By Ernst Junger
(Penguin, 2007; various current reissues)
An account of trench warfare from one of the German survivors, with little philosophical introspection. The book is currently enjoying one of its periodic resurgences.

A Farewell to Arms.
By Ernest Hemingway.
(Scribner Reprint, 1995)
A famous and fine novel about an ambulance driver in the Italian front.

There are a lot of fantastic Web sites in existence; here are two of my favorites:
The successor Web site to Trenches on the Web. A wealth of material is tucked away in various corners, including original photographs, maps and even songs.
A superb Web site with a lot of good, well-researched information.


Imperial War Museums London has a great collection; for those who cannot get to London, there is also a good Web site with much original material.

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This article was originally published with the title "Centennial of a Calamity."

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