The Week Behind and the Week Ahead

by I.A. Isherwood

It was a full week of hardcore military history for our Great Warriors. On Monday, we outlined the opening phases of the war on the western front. On Wednesday, we had a full day discussing the war in the west in 1915 and some of the war on the eastern front(s). I decided to break up the days according to western and eastern theaters because it seemed 1) logical to do so and 2) their textbook broke these fronts into separate chapters. Going back and forth between the fronts seemed a confusing way to teach the material.

I began each day outlining the armies involved in the campaigns – their leadership, size, etc. – before getting into the major battles. On Monday our conversation was a bit sluggish, but on Wednesday our conversation turned spirited, the class showing that they really understood the material and that they are really hungry to learn more.

Boom, as the youth say.

What were some highlights, you ask?

When we discussed the war in 1915, we talked a bit about the difficulties facing commanders who were trying to break the deadlock on the western front, but failing disastrously to do so. The two battles that the class really understood were those of Neuve Chapelle and Loos, two failed offensives. In both instances, British generals and their staffs meticulously planned battles that went badly once their plans were implemented. Rather than focussing on the blundering of generals, we discussed instead the difficulties of command and control on a changing battlefield, one where firepower was decisive over sheer manpower. We broke through some WWI stereotypes with this kind of nuance.

When we discussed the Battle of Loos, I had the class read an account from Hugh ‘Jack’ Peirs of the 8th Battalion, The Queen’s West Surrey Regiment. Peirs wrote home to his father on September 28, 1915 ‘too miserable for words’ describing how his battalion had lost ten of its twenty officers in an attack that was repulsed. Peirs led his men across no man’s land ‘as if on a field day’ only to be cut up by the German machine guns on their flanks. ‘I should feel quite proud,’ he wrote of the attack, ‘but I am simply heart broken now.’ I chose the Peirs letter so that we could move from the map on the screen to the mind of a man who was there, struggling to understand the point of an attack that failed, dealing with grief and the confusion of battle. We will return to Peirs in this class: students will follow his journey as they keep learning about the war on the western front.

peirs_ph-06_01

Lt. Colonel H.J.C. Peirs, D.S.O. Photo courtesy of Dracopoli/Zorich Family and Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.

Then we moved to the war in the east in 1914. We only got through Tannenberg before we ran out of time. With this class, Tannenberg basically taught itself.

Next Week: We will cover the eastern front(s) in 1915 on Monday and begin our class discussion of Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (Le Feu).

Sources:

Letters of Lt. Col. H.J.C. Peirs, D.S.O., courtesy of the Dracopili/Zorich Family and Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.

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