‘I’m not yelling at you, this is just how I sound when I get excited about things.’

by I.A. Isherwood

Years ago I was told by a friend/mentor that sometimes it is hardest to teach the things you know best. Yesterday’s hard slog of trying to understand the experience of WWI was a case in point. I came across a bit dogmatic, I’m afraid, and I certainly didn’t do justice to the material. My teaching didn’t keep me up at night – there are good days and bad days in this profession and you just learn to roll with them – but what did keep me up were the responses I got from students when I asked them a simple question. What do you know about WWI?

Every college professor who works on WWI in the United States has the same frustration: we all want our students to be able to think both conceptually and contextually about the world wars, but instead, students come to us with rigidity instead of flexibility. So when looking at something as big as the causes of a world war, students usually have one answer (typically the proverbial ‘whipping boys’ of a certain dead archduke, the systemic but incredibly abstract ‘isms i.e. nationalism or imperialism, or the greatest of escaped goats, the Treaty of Versailles). Students are often trained to get something ‘right’ on a test rather than to assess and analyze evidence to build an argument.

I never want to come across as dogmatic and I never want to come across as a know-it-all in class. It upsets me when I look at their weary faces and have to say ‘I’m not yelling at you, this is just how I sound when I get excited about things.’ I’ve always seen my position as being that of a more experienced scholar in a room of less-experienced scholars: my role is one of guidance and mentorship, primarily, and not to merely impart information that I think is right. When it comes to my field, though, I have a nasty tendency to get bristly when old myths come from the mouths of young scholars who are eager and understandably just trying to answer the question I asked them and get it right.

What do you know about the First World War?

1) Franz Ferdinand and the Black Hand.

2) Nationalism and Imperialism.

3) A gentleman’s war (at the start) then things got messy.

4) Attrition.

5) Poison gas and machine guns.


7) Disillusionment:( and the Lost Generation.

Numbers 1 & 2 pertain to causality. The war was not caused by one factor. There were systemic causes to the war (the ‘isms), but these leave one strangely unsatisfied. There were more direct causes, such as the July Crisis, but the assassination (No. 2) was merely a catalyst to a bunch of moving parts. In order to really understand how No. 1 influences No. 2 you have to get a bit messy and get look at a bit of international history before 1914 and examine who was actually making the decision for war in each belligerent nation. Nationalism (as a thing) did not make the decision for war: parliaments and princes did and general staffs implemented national policy accordingly


Or you could just blame the Kaiser. Wikipedia Commons.

Numbers 3-5 demonstrates how little most people know about the actual conduct of the war. (And sadness befalls him) Though certainly many who fought in the war would have identified themselves as gentleman (No. 3), the war, like wars before and after it, was destructive and brutal from the first moment a shell was fired. The war did not begin as one of attrition, though there were many who expected that to be the result of a general European war, but once the war moved into its attritional phase, generals and their staffs had to adjust accordingly. That adjustment came while trying to manage armies on multiple fronts that were larger than pre-war planners had ever managed before. New technologies offered both opportunities, but also frustrations, as war planners experimented with ways to use these technologies most effectively (and in ways that would reduce harm to their own soldiers). Machine guns and gas were parts of a much bigger operational picture that sadly has been reduced to mired tactical failures and the gloomy image of what I will simply call ‘trench torture’.

No. 6. It didn’t.

Just kidding. It did.

Seriously, kidding. Numbers 6 and 7 are questions of legacy. Were the architects of the Treaty of Versailles trying to cause a second world war? Why is this important? I don’t think there are any historians out there who would doubt that the treaty is super important to understanding the causes of WWII, but it’s a surprisingly hard argument to make that the treaty itself is the reason for the outbreak of war in September 1939. When you try putting the ducks into a row, you find a number of missing ducks, some who frankly refuse to cooperate, and a whole lot of Nazi propaganda. In order to understand the way the treaty fails in its intention – which is to prevent war not make it – you really need to look closely at the twenty years after the treaty and how political and economic developments worldwide led to violence in Asia and Europe in the 1930s. As for the question of disillusionment, this pertains to the way in which people (individuals as well as cultures, I suppose) reacted to the war’s suffering. The words war-weariness and dislocation are equally vague but strangely more appealing to me than the Big D. The bottom line is that I don’t think we should get our cultural history of the 1920s from A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby, and this seems to be where people were going with the question of disillusionment.

I don’t know what this all means in a wider sense, but the purpose of this blog is for me to report and react to things in the classroom, and to mull them over a bit on the page. Perhaps you have some thoughts? Trust me, I’m interested.