How Should World War I Be Taught?

On August 5th, 1917 The New York Times published a rotogravure pictorial spread for their Sunday supplement, leading with General Pershing inspecting a shell factory in France (the top image).

The most alarming picture in the entire 7-page spread is the one in the lower left-hand corner (closeup below) showing French soldiers wearing gas hoods operating a truck-mounted gun (right under a picture of Gen. Pershing getting a rose from a Parisian munitions worker):See the whole thing at the Library of Congress.  And don’t miss reading the ads at the back — items such as “Armi-Khaki” brand trousers and skirts were for sale for the discerning yet patriotic young woman.  And check out the other newspapers in this collection: the New York Tribune had far more accurate pictures of life in wartime.

Compare that sanitized version to the present.  The lede on this Associated Press article about the centenary of the third Battle of Ypres (which occurred about a week before the Times thing was published) shows how reporting has changed:

Dismembered soldiers sucked into cesspools of mud. Shattered tree trunks and the waft of poison gas hovering over the wounded who were awaiting their fates on the scarred soil of Flanders Fields.

The featured image for this post shows a nightmare scene from Ypres that never made it into a contemporary newspaper, but that could definitely be used for that AP article.  It shows soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917. The leading soldier is Gunner James Fulton and the second soldier is Lieutenant Anthony Devine. The men belong to a battery of the 10th Field Artillery Brigade. (Photo by Frank Hurley, available from the Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial under the ID Number: E01220.)

The recent centenary of the U.S. entry into World War I on April 6th has prompted a similar bit of soul searching about how that war is represented in our classrooms — and in our textbooks.  The state standards for U.S. history courses vary widely, but most emphasize teaching WWI as part of the narrative of rising U.S. power and its global projection, while the standards for world history courses emphasize impersonal forces such as nationalism, militarism, and imperialism.  (I say most, even though the author only surveyed three large states, as I’ve done or supervised correlations for dozens of sets of state standards over the years.)  Author Kyle Greenwalt thinks this is due to the differing aims of the courses (creating citizens vs. navigating global connections), but that they can be reconciled:

In my own view, it seems incomplete to teach just one of these conflicting views of World War I. Instead, I would recommend to history teachers that they explore competing perspectives of the past with their students.

What do you think?   If you compare WorldView Software’s American History II, Chapter 8: America Becomes Involved in World War I with our World History B, Chapter 8: Causes, Course and Conclusion of World War I, you should see elements from both the narratives represented.  For example, in World History B, you’ll find Wilson’s Fourteen Points presented from the American point of view, as well as a map detailing the extent of imperialism in 1915.

And it matters today because we see the same urges to isolationism and internationalism: The recent Bastille Day celebrations in France included the French president hosting the American one:

But Mr. Macron is hoping that his invitation will mark a turnaround: that Trump’s positions on trade, borders, security – and key from the French president’s vantage, the Paris climate accord, from which the US pulled out – could get a rethink after his state visit. After all, if President Wilson won the 1916 American election on an isolationist pledge, he entered “The Great War” just weeks after his inauguration, a key to the Allied victory a year and a half later.

It’s too early to tell whether this tack will work, but it shows that at least Macron is determined not to let history repeat.


BulbgraphOnOffWrite unguided essay outlines together in class, using the guided essay model. Have class discuss and select main and supporting ideas.


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akamran2014

Dr. Annelies Kamran is V.P. for Content and Product Development at WorldView Software, Inc.

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