By Nat Frothingham
As part of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I (November 11, 1918)—Norwich University convened a faculty discussion panel on November 9 to reflect on the meaning and significance of the First World War. Often called “the forgotten war,” the four-year conflict, from July 28, 1914, to November 11, 1918, resulted in 116,516 American combat deaths and approximately 210,000 wounded and missing among the 4.355 million Americans who served.
Norwich University Panelists
Participating in the panel discussion were these faculty members:
Rowland Brucken, professor of history and author of A Most Uncertain Crusade: The United States, the United Nations, and Human Rights, 1941–1953. This book discusses America’s uncertain commitment to international human rights during and after World War II.
Reina Pennington, Charles A. Dana Professor of History, an expert in Russian and European history whose first book was Wings, Women and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat.
Lea Williams, chair of the department of English and communications, who is presently working on a full-length biography of Ellen N. LaMotte, an American nurse who was a graduate of Johns Hopkins Training School for Nurses, an expert in combat tuberculosis, and a nurse in a French military hospital during World War I.
Steven E. Sodergren, panel moderator, who is chair of the department of history and political science. His recently published book The Army of the Potomac in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns: Union Soldiers and Trench Warfare is the recipient of the 2018 William E. Colby Award.
In his introduction to the panel discussion, Sodergren, the panel’s moderator, detailed some of the major military and diplomatic events during 1918 that led to the Armistice on November 11, 1918. He went on to say that when the Armistice took effect and guns stopped firing, what the soldiers noticed was the sudden silence. One American soldier wrote these words:
At the front our days and nights were filled with the sounds and smells of bombardment. Never were we free of it, and we had to learn to live with it. On November 11 at 11 am, those sounds and vibrations abruptly stopped. The quietness that followed was awesome; you could feel it—almost smell and taste it. There was no singing, no shouting, no laughter; we just stood around and looked and listened.
In a wide-ranging discussion the panelists deliberated on a range of subjects. Sodergren offered the idea that World War I had sometimes encouraged marginalized people to stand up for themselves, imagining that after the war they might be able to renegotiate the prevailing social contract.
During World War I, women often stepped into jobs previously performed by men who had gone off to war. As the war ended, some women gained the right to vote. In 1918, women over 30 in Britain got the vote. In 1919, Dutch women got the vote. In 1920, American women got the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Pennington talked about 6,000 Russian women who took combat roles in the Russian army.
Reflecting on winners and losers after the war, Brucken said, “People of color were big losers. So were people whose countries had been colonized by the European powers.” Speaking about African-Americans, Brucken noted that black American veterans in uniform returning home to the American South after the war often faced physical assault, if not death. After World War I ended, the Ku Klux Klan re-emerged as a potent force in the American South. And after World War I colonized people around the world saw their drive for independence still thwarted.
Professor Lea Williams talked about the literature of war and the difficulty writers were experiencing in finding language to communicate the harsh reality of trench warfare. The novelist and thinker Robert Graves had written about noise. What was it about noise, he asked. How could you describe noise in words?
The war conferred other impacts on writers and artists. After World War I, artists and writers could talk and write about things that they were not free to before 1914.
The Norwich University faculty panelists deliberated on the question of blame and what countries were to blame for World War I. Williams thought everyone was to blame. Brucken said that asking who is to blame is “splitting hairs.” As the discussion proceeded, there was a growing consensus among the panelists to suggest that there was plenty of blame and responsibility to share around with all the war’s combatants.
Sodergren raised this question, “How does World War I affect us today?”
Brucken noted that the First World War was the first time that the United States participated in a war in Europe. Pennington pointed out that the First World War with its new technologies led directly to the strategic bombing and the Holocaust of World War II.
Pennington drew attention to the massive changes in the world political map because of World War I. “The modern Middle East emerged from World War I. It had a profound impact on what is going on in the Middle East today,” she declared.