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America’s neglected conflict: The First World War

Ask an American what comes to mind about the First World War and the response is likely to be “not very much,” and certainly less than about World War II. Perhaps that is to be expected, given the different circumstances under which the United States entered the two wars. In 1941 the choice was inescapable after the searing experience of Pearl Harbor. But for years after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, the conviction remained widespread that American interests were not directly threatened by events an ocean away. Moreover, once the United States formally entered the conflict in April 1917, it fought for just eighteen months until the Armistice. In contrast, in the Second World War, American soldiers waged a much longer, geographically expansive, and costly four-year struggle in the European and Pacific theatres. The million-man American Expeditionary Force (AEF) mobilized to Europe in 1917-18 certainly eclipsed any previous American military effort, but itself was dwarfed by the 16 million troops in uniform in World War II. Casualties told a similar tale, as the 116,000 men lost in the First World War seemingly paled in comparison to the 405,000 troops who died in between 1941 and 1945.

The disparity in how Americans recall the two conflicts is also evident in stone. Although in the 1920s many cities and towns chose to erect monuments, plaques of honor roll, and cemetery memorials to their hometown heroes, there was until very recently no organized effort to create a national edifice to commemorate America’s participation in World War I. An impressive World War II memorial opened to the public in the spring of 2004 with a prominent location in the preeminent commemorative space of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The anticipated monument to American participation in the First World War will be less prominent, consigned to a nearby park currently honoring General John J Pershing, commander of the AEF.

Eclipsed by the second, bigger conflict, the First World War seems in danger of being America’s forgotten war. It deserves better. Its impact and significance merit our attention. This is true both for its specific effects in the United States and its broader reach as a global event. Americans experienced the vastly expanded administrative and regulatory authority of the federal government in matters ranging from conscription and tax policy, to the imposition of daylight saving time. Whether it was Doughboys overseas (or out of state) returning from their service abroad or economists grappling with reparations, Americans could no longer remain as isolated from world affairs. As a world war, its destructive legacy included the turmoil surrounding the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian empires, the ensuing polarization between the Soviet state and the West, the dislocation of economies, and the diminished confidence in liberal governments or the prospect of progress. Not to mention the perhaps forty million soldiers and civilians killed or wounded during the conflict. A good case can be made that the First World War, not the advent of the year 1900, marks the real beginning of the twentieth century.

 Eclipsed by the second, bigger conflict, the First World War seems in danger of being America’s forgotten war. It deserves better.

A good case can also be made as well that one of the most effective ways of grasping the impact of this war with its massive disruption, transnational significance, and huge, seemingly impersonal, scale is to put a human face upon it. A more intimate and revealing look at the conflict, through the varied experiences of individual participants, allies and enemies, combatants and civilians, prisoners and internees, is possible through the diaries they left behind. Those diaries, from the battlefields, the camps, and the home fronts, can offer us unique and compelling insights into that conflict.

These individuals did not intend to put their experiences to paper for a curious public to read a century later. On the contrary, the diaries were written for the purpose of reflection, consolation, and psychological relief—as a coping mechanism to deal with the realities of isolation and death, as well as a record for their families on the home front.

One of the most unique and compelling diaries is that of a young Jewish German business apprentice, Willy Wolff, who interned in an enemy alien camp for much of the war. That internment camps even existed before the Second World War is a lesser-known fact. Rapidly cobbled together British wartime legislation mandated the arrest and detention in camps of non-naturalized foreigners, especially, but not exclusively, those of military age from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Such laws were the product of an increasingly xenophobic and spy-obsessed nation.

The largest of such camps, Knockaloe, located on the windswept Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea, housed 20,000 “enemy aliens” from 1915 until 1919, one of whom was Wolff. His diary, resurrected from an archive and translated for the first time into English, paints in great detail a depressing portrait of a man whose only offense was his German birth. Suffering from ennui, hunger, frustration, and resentment in captivity, Wolff describes in vivid detail camp conditions, including the strict regulations and punitive measures imposed upon internees, as well as the tensions that often surfaced between the internees themselves. Finally released in 1919, Wolff returned to his German homeland where he remained until the rise of Nazism forced him to immigrate to the United States. Somehow, however, Wolff never lost faith in humanity and his religion. His remarkable diary is a poignant reminder from a century ago of the vulnerable status of aliens and the dangers of rampant xenophobia.

The records of World War I diarists serve to underscore the importance of a war that for too long has been neglected.

Featured image credit: Pershing Park at 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in Washington, D.C. The park is named after John J. Pershing, the General of the Armies during World War I by AgnosticPreachersKid. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Peter Anderson

    I live in the UK, I write a small blog every so often on the First World War. More people in the USA read my Blog than Brits do. Americans are interested.

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