Historiography of World War One

Ways of writing and thinking about World War One have developed and changed over the past 100 years. Yohann le Tallec examines these differences in historical research and writing, focusing on the broad move away from military history towards an approach that places human beings at its centre.
In all the countries involved in the First World War, ways of writing and thinking about the conflict have seen many changes. Since 1914 and the outbreak of the war, thousands of books, novels and films have been dedicated to it. In the 1920s writers and scholars chiefly focused on the question of responsibility for the war’s outbreak and on the conduct of military operations, as these topics were of particular interest for those who had been directly involved. In contrast, the last 20 years have seen a profound change in the way scholars write and teach about the First World War experience. A number of historians have shifted personalities off the centre stage of the war’s history and have focused instead on representations of the war as viewed through the prism of wartime culture. French historiography has become characterised by a move from a history in which the war’s origins were mostly considered from the angle of diplomatic and political responsibilities to a history that draws more attention to popular mentalities and to the weight of national feeling within European societies.

Initial studies after the war

The initial studies after the end of the war were mainly dedicated to the political and diplomatic aspects of the crisis of the summer of 1914. With its military defeated, Germany was designated at the peace conference as being responsible for the outbreak of the war (French public opinion mostly sharing the viewpoint of Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, who was firmly convinced of Germany’s overwhelming share of the blame). In France this historiographical trend began to change after the Second World War and during the early stages of the building of the European Communities. The strength of patriotic feeling in the initial phase of the war has been reinterpreted. Although it certainly influenced public opinion (if less than was once thought) in Britain, France and Germany, it was weaker in Russia (where it was largely confined to the urban population) and in Italy (until the disaster of Caporetto in 1917 and the subsequent invasion of Italian soil changed matters).

Georges Clémenceau leaves the Peace Conference

Georges Clémenceau leaves the Peace Conference

French Prime Minister, Georges Clémenceau, pictured in July 1919 leaving the Paris Peace Conference.

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Understanding the outbreak of the war

Obviously, understanding the outbreak of the war requires not only a study of political leaders’ behaviour but also a consideration of the underlying beliefs in European societies about the issues at stake. As the British historian James Joll wrote: ‘Again and again, during the July crisis, we saw men who were suddenly trapped and were not able to control the nation’s fate’.[1] Military strategists also played a key role, as their pre-war planning envisaged rapid mobilisation and deployment and limited the time available for diplomacy. In spite of the strength of support for socialist parties in France and Germany (most of the European socialist leaders holding a meeting in Brussels on 29 July 1914) and the power of trade unions, moreover, the Left were unable to prevent the growing tide of nationalism across Europe. In France Jean Jaurès (the socialist party leader) was assassinated by a nationalist in Paris on 31 July. At Jaurès’s funeral, the new secretary-general of the trade union federation, the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), Léon Jouhaux, proclaimed his support for the war. The importance of national feeling at the time of the outbreak of the war is also very clear in the case of Great Britain where a powerful neutralist current of opinion centred on the Manchester Guardian newspaper. Moreover, British opinion had very little sympathy for the Serbian cause. Nevertheless, the invasion of Belgium led the British government, with support from public opinion (in a country where military conscription did not exist at this time), to declare war on Germany.

A shift towards troops’ experiences

A second major change in the historiography has been a shift from a military history centred on operational aspects (in which ordinary soldiers made very few appearances), to a history focused on the fighting troops and their experiences (including the experience of death, and their lives behind the front line as well as in it). For example, a study in 1922 by the renowned French historian Ernest Lavisse was mainly dedicated to the history of military operations and gave little place to the soldiers themselves or their experiences. [2] After the war ended, however, numerous memoirs were published and a distinctive ‘war literature’ developed. In 1928 Jean Norton Cru published, under the significant title Témoins (‘Witnesses’), the first scholarly study of this literature. Nevertheless, it is only recently that the ordinary soldiers’ war experience has been fully taken into account. Today, two main schools of interpretation exist on how so long and terrible a conflict could have been possible. The first school emphasizes the resilience of the soldiers’ morale, even if its robustness varied during the war. According to this school, soldiers saw the need to stand and fight, and their willingness to do so reflected the strength of national feeling. In other words, they accepted the war.[3] The second school propounds a very different point of view. Soldiers, whether or not they had strong national feelings, remained in line because they were subjected to harsh military discipline. In addition to the example of the French army mutinies of 1917 (which followed the disastrous failure of the Chemin des Dames offensive), these scholars insist on the victimization of the soldiers, using as an illustration the soldiers shot as an example to others (mainly in 1914-15).[4] In recent years, some historians have also drawn attention to the role of military medicine, more precisely in fields such as the treatment of psychiatric trauma. [5]

Commemoration

A new field of research is the way in which the belligerent nations have commemorated the sacrifice of a generation (through war memorials, unknown soldier memorials or commemoration days). In France, public commemorations took on great importance, mainly due to the massive destruction that occurred on French soil and to the fact that the number of deaths in France proportionate to population was the highest among the main belligerents.[6] Modern historiography has also focused on the history of the veterans and their organizations.[7] Lastly, deaths and injuries in such unprecedented numbers, and the anonymous, wholesale destructiveness of modern weaponry led (to use the term introduced by the American historian Georges Mosse) to the ’brutalization’ of the societies involved in the war.[8]

Soldiers’ Memorial, Fort Frances

Soldiers’ Memorial, Fort Frances

A public memorial with carved list of names of fallen soldiers located in Fort Frances, Ontario.

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Humans at the centre of the agenda

These more recent approaches keep human beings at the centre of the agenda. They render obsolete, at least in part, the old distinction between wars of movement and positional or trench warfare by reflecting on the larger change from a traditional vision of war to a new type of industrialized war, and by setting the scholarly focus on the ways in which the war was remembered and commemorated. In the words of Michel Goya, ‘the year 1916 is the turning-point between classical and modern warfare’.[9] The nature of the war itself deeply changed. In an industrialized war, economic organization became as important as the soldiers themselves in the final victory or (in the case of Germany), in the defeat of 1918. This new organization led women but also workers from the colonies to enter employment in armaments factories. Thus, the rear areas became the ‘other front’.[10]

Footnotes

[1] James Joll, 1914: the Unspoken Assumptions (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1968) p.6.

[2] LAVISSE, E., Histoire de la France contemporaine, tome 9. Hachette, 1922. Of 548 pages, 336 referred to military operations and about 150 to diplomatic issues.

[3] AUDOIN-ROUZEAU, St., BECKER, A., 14-18, Retrouver la guerre, Gallimard, 2000.

[4] PEDRONCINI, G., Les mutineries de 1917. PUF, 1967.

[5] DELAPORTE, S., Les médecins dans la Grande Guerre. Bayard, 2004.

[6] BECKER, A., Les monuments aux morts, mémoire de la Grande Guerre. Bayard, 2004.

[7] PROST, A., Les anciens combattants et la société française 1914-1939, Presses de la Fondation nationale des Sciences politiques, 1977.

[8] MOSSE, G., De la Grande Guerre au totalitarisme, la brutalisation des sociétés européennes, Hachette, 1999.
AUDOIN-ROUZEAU, St., BECKER, E., INGRAO, Ch., ROUSSO, H., La violence de guerre. Approche comparée des deux conflits mondiaux, Complexe, 2002.

[9] GOYA, M., La chair et l’acier. L’invention de la guerre moderne (1914-1918), Tallandier, 2004.

[10] PORTE, R., L’industrialisation de la guerre, premier front de la Grande Guerre

  • Yohann le Tallec
  • Curator at the National Library of France, Yohann Le Tallec is in charge both of the European projects (Europeana 14-18, Europeana Newspapers) and of the research programs in the field of new technologies. Yohann Le Tallec is also a senior researcher belonging to the National Center for Scientific Research, his field of research is dedicated to the reception of war memory in modern societies.