Art, sites, images: reminders of the Great War

Apr 7, 2017 By Robert H. Peck

This week marks the centennial of America's entrance into the Great War, as it's still usually called in many parts of the world.

The First World War has become a somewhat overlooked conflict in the U.S. compared to the more familiar Civil War, Second World War, and Vietnam War. All of these are part of our national consciousness in a way the Great War often isn't. As a high school student, I skipped it; many of my fellow history majors missed it entirely in college as well.

In Europe, though, the First World War persists as a seminal moment in human history. This is probably the more historically accurate view of a war that killed at least 10 million people and injured four times that many, the first war to bring conflict to the home front and the first to involve artillery, aircraft and automatic weapons.

In many parts of the world, it's nearly impossible to enter a government building, a church, or even a park without encountering numerous war memorials documenting the catastrophe that this war was--researching it for my thesis project a few years ago, I found 110 memorials in a few days just walking around London, and proper surveys put the total number of them, in that city alone, at over 4,000.

The decline of church attendance in the West; the advent of cynicism in prose and painting and sculpture and poetry and drama, spawning such artists as Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf; the utter dissolution of some of the old world's mightiest powers; all of these cultural moments, which resonate today, spawned from the aftermath of the Great War.

It's worth remembering the significance this war has for the world when we reflect on our nation's entrance into it, 100 years ago as of yesterday. The United States was only a factor in the last few months of the fighting, and many of our casualties came from the flu rather than the front lines. But underestimating the U.S. role would be a mistake: American reinforcements gave flagging allies the strength they needed to overcome an adept German military that had already done the unthinkable, defeating Russia on the Eastern Front and bringing brilliant commanders to France to try and do the same.

As much as an Axis victory in the Second World War might have changed the face of history, so, surely, would an allied loss in the First--a loss that seemed a real possibility at some junctures and had already begun to pass in the East by the time America declared war.

There are surviving WWII veterans among us yet, though they are fewer and further between all the time. For the Great War, we have nobody. How do we go about learning of this war, especially in a nation that played a relatively small part in it?

The answer to this must surely lie in artwork. This month, as the War's centennial continues to roar with commemorations and publications and historical video series going into extended runs, go to a library, and check out Mrs. Dalloway, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Johnny Got His Gun, Goodbye to All That, or Heartbreak House. Or go online and find the commissioned battlefront artwork of Nevinson, Bone, or Kennington, all sent to the Western Front as commissioned military artists to record the slaughter (imagine that being allowed today). If you can locate it, watch some of the spectacular play War Horse, debuted in 2014 in London's West End. And, above all else, try and find time to visit our local Great War memorial sites, many of them war graves found on Riverview Road at the Oddfellows Cemetery in Riverton. The art, the sites, the images: These, now, are what we have left to remind us of what were possibly the most significant four years in human history.

The Great War is behind us now, and world wars in general may, so help us, be a thing of the past. For the time being, the only danger these wars pose to us is that we might forget them.

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