Week 8: “The Great War: Perspectives on the First World War”

This review is a bit belated, but my dawdling is not meant to be a reflection on my reading material. “The Great War,” edited by Robert Cowley, is an excellent book. Its essays cross the war from start to finish, touching on various topics that will be more or less interesting to you — I read the pieces on Sgt. York and Kathe Kollwitz, by John Bowers and Cowley, respectively, nodding my head, yes, yes, yes.

You might read the chapter on the naval war nodding your head and be astonished by York’s adventures and their aftermath. There is something for everyone to learn here.

I was most intrigued by Cowley’s discussion of the Massacre of the Innocents. You remember them, right? The German college students who marched into the fray near the Belgian village of Langemark, singing “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles,” and were cut down like daisies (but not before afflicting heavy losses on the heartless French)? Hitler loved the story, as an illustration of how evil the French were.

But, Cowley says, it was just a story. It’s true that Germany threw thousands of green troops, poorly trained and equipped, into the First Battle of Ypres. First Ypres was a disaster: Germany lost 80,000 to 100,000 men between mid-October and mid-November. But less than 20% of them were students, Cowley says, and they didn’t sing as they died.

It was just a myth, when the country most needed one to bolster another, larger myth: The war was winnable and Germany would win it.

This is Langemark during the war:

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And this is a contemporary photo, from the Langemark German Military Cemetery.

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