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The Great War

About a month ago I came upon a reference to the First World War in something that I was reading and googled to find out some further info.  I think I have a fair knowledge of American history and knew some very basic facts about the war but I have to confess to being fairly ignorant about America’s role  and the conditions with which it was fought. I knew much more by far  about the Civil War and World War Two than “The Great War” which I suspect puts me in line with most Americans. The next week I stopped by the Strand bookstore and found this same thing echoed in the amount of shelf space afforded to each war.  A book case for the Civil War, a case for WWII and sandwiched in between were a few shelves for WWI.

It’s often a small piece of information that opens a door to a subject. For the past month I’ve been reading what I can  to fill my gap in knowledge and started 2 sketchbooks of drawings in preparation for….a narrative? A folio of drawings?  I’m not exactly sure  yet. 

  The war started in 1914 and ended in 1918. America entered the war relatively late in the conflict, declaring war on the central powers in April 1917 and sending troops over by the summer of 1918.  The United States mobilized  4 million men in that short amount of time and had a casualty list of  320, 000 men (116, 000 killed, 204,000 wounded) for the war  which is a gruesome statistic. Other allied powers say France had a 73 percent casualty rate.   A frightening loss of life. 

The Great War was considered the beginning of modern warfare, (or mass carnage if you like) and is probably associated with the unique feature of the use of poison gas and  trench warfare. Stalemates between sides where each is entrenched  and not able to advance. When an advance was attempted with infantry  “going over the top” of the trench it was usually accompanied by a huge loss of life due to progress in modern technology ie: 
artillery, machine guns, grenades.

Animals where used extensively during the war.  Horses were used in calvary units and along with Donkeys and dogs (the Belgian army)  to transport equipment . The Germans  also used dogs to carry messages and both sides used carrier pigeons for messages.  Animals are always the forgotten casualties of war.  I can imagine a landscape littered with horse corpses.

While  researching I’m struck by  the photos of these apocalyptic landscapes. bare splintered trees, mud everywhere because the ground is so torn  up by shelling that nothing can grow to hold water run off.

And trench life.  Long periods of time were spent by soldiers in the trenches.  and the existence  was hell. enduring constant lice, shelling, anxiety laced boredom, gas attacks, any number of things pertaining to the dark side of the human condition. More than anything else the absurdity of war is represented by the trenches.  Large loss of human life and no ground gained , nothing accomplished.

It seems that there are a lot of stories here to tell.


(More to come)


One Response

  1. Readers will also be interested in Soldiers Mail which features the writings home of U.S. Sgt Sam Avery from the front lines of American involvement in the Great War. Letters are posted on the same date they were written more than 90 years ago. Fascinating eyewitness history from the hot sands along the Rio Grande to the cold mud along the Meuse. Come march along with the Most Gallant Generation!

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