On Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. in Compiègne, France, the Allied powers and Germany officially put into effect their agreement to end hostilities, marking the conclusion of World War I. As the centennial of Armistice Day, observed as Veterans Day in the U.S., approaches, publishers are releasing titles about the conflict’s final stretch, and on the war’s lingering cultural influence.
In December, Pen & Sword, distributed in the U.S. by Casemate, will publish 1918 by Richard van Emden, author of more than a dozen books on World War I, which typically draw on diaries, memoirs, and photographs taken by soldiers. In his decades researching the Great War, van Emden has also spoken directly with veterans. “He started by interviewing survivors of World War I until the last one died about 10 years ago,” says Pen & Sword publisher Charles Hewitt. “This puts him in a unique position—he can tell the history of World War I through the eyes of those who were there.”
With the war faded from living memory, publishers are relying on archival accounts to tell its story. Victory 1918 (The History Press, Nov.) collects Armistice Day photos from Mirrorpix, the licensing arm of major U.K. newspaper publisher Reach (which publishes the Daily Mirror and many others). Photos evince the day’s celebratory mood as well as the more somber reflections that the end of the conflict occasioned.
In Peace at Last (Yale, Nov.), Guy Cuthbertson, associate professor of English literature at Liverpool Hope University, tracks the events of Armistice Day and responses to the cease-fire via contemporary news reports, memoirs, letters, and literature. He shares reactions from soldiers, civilians, and notable names such as D.H. Lawrence.
After the last battle ended, the work to commemorate those who’d fallen began.
In the recently released The Unknowns (Atlantic Monthly), military historian Patrick K. O’Donnell explains the origins of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery near Washington, D.C., where, on Armistice Day in 1921, a single representative unidentified soldier was laid to rest. O’Donnell focuses on eight appointed “body bearers” who, in their diversity—one was Native American, another a cowboy—offer a multifaceted picture of those who served in the Great War.
War and Remembrance (Univ. Press of Kentucky, Oct.) by Thomas H. Conner, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, looks at the efforts of the American Battle Monuments Commission to commemorate the war and its casualties. Since its founding in 1923, ABMC has established 25 overseas cemeteries honoring almost 140,000 fallen soldiers, and memorials acknowledging more than 60,000 unidentified war dead.
The Neverending Story
A century after its end, WWI continues to provide writers, artists, and historians with rich material, as forthcoming books about its influence indicate.
Classic Stories of WWI (Canterbury Classics, Oct.) gathers fiction and nonfiction about the war by such authors as Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton, and Ernest Hemingway, whose short story “In Another Country,” included in the book, chronicles the experiences of wounded soldiers in Milan.
World War I also produced voluminous journalism, which, for today’s readers, can demonstrate how understanding of the conflict has changed over time. In The AEF in Print (Univ. of North Texas, out now), editors Chris Dubbs and John-Daniel Kelley relate the involvement of the American Expeditionary Forces—the U.S. Army on the Western Front—via news and magazine articles from the period. Dubbs says that, though some of this reportage is marred by “breathlessness” and “nationalism,” it nevertheless provides a critical window into how Americans felt about the conflict. “I don’t think anyone can fully appreciate how America experienced the war unless they look at it through this lens,” he adds.
After the centennial has passed, though, will readers continue to show interest in the war? Dubbs is skeptical. “There’s such a vast historiography of World War II and, further back in history, of the Civil War,” he says. “World War I is overshadowed by both those things. It’s been brought into the light of day somewhat by this anniversary. But I worry it’s going to fall back into the shadows again.”
Pen & Sword’s Hewitt is more optimistic. Diaries and photographs continue to surface, he says. French and German writings await translation into English. And historians keep asking revisionist what-ifs. Though attention to the war “may ebb and flow,” he says, “the underlying interest will always be there.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer in New York.
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