The First World War? Not so much.
We were VERY late to that fight. Approximately two-thirds of the conflict was over before the United States declared war on the 6th of April in 1917. Before our doughboys arrived in any meaningful numbers, the War was six months from its Armistice. The US suffered 117,000 deaths—and 45,000 of those were from the Spanish influenza that may have begun at a US army post in Kansas.
So it’s understandable why American History classes don’t spend much time on WWI. This is very unlike any other major combatant nations. For the French, it’s a Very Big Deal indeed—a northern chunk of their country was devastated and a quarter of their generation of young men were killed and another half maimed in body and spirit. The Great War was a defining moment for the Dominion nations of the British Empire—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland—seeing the First World War as their entry onto the world stage as co-equal members of the community of nations. For the Germans, fighting and losing upended everything and opened space for the rise of the Nazis.
All that said, the First World War is currently Having a Moment in America. This is almost entirely due to the buzz brought about by a couple of recent films—one documentary by a famous director and one Really Big Production that’s nominated for several Oscars. As a guy who’s written three novels set during the First World War and 1920s, I’m happier than a puppy with two tails. I am also humble but very glad to accept your money for copies of my books, in electrons or on paper products.
The documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, was directed by Peter Jackson. This New Zealander endeared himself to the child in all of us by rendering onto film his lush and loving adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and its sequel, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Curiously, Tolkien had been a lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers during the First World War—his Orcs of Middle Earth were inspired by his time in the trenches.)
They Shall Not Grow Old, which has played off and on at theaters across America since January of 2019, represents the coming together of three important things—Jackson’s fame and directorial skill, the 100 hours of First World War film and 200 hours of audio interviews with veterans in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London, and new digital film technology that allowed Jackson to do some miraculous things. The 15-minute afterward of the film features Jackson explaining the various technologies and methods he used to normalize the film speeds, colorize the images, brighten faded or badly lit footage, and add sound, including voice actors lip synching from dialogue deciphered by a Scotland Yard forensic lip reader.
The result of Jackson’s work—a labor of love, given his fond memories of his father’s recounting of his grandfather’s War service—was quite astonishing. The visual sense we have long had of the First World War is scratchy black-and-white images of men moving in the same jerky manner as those old images of Babe Ruth. And either silence or incongruous old piano music in minor keys played along with the images. For the men and women who went to war during 1914-1918, they experienced the carnage in living color. And it was anything but silent.
Having seen They Shall Not Grow Old three times now, I am still astonished by how intimate and immediate Jackson has rendered the Great War. You fully realize how very young these men were, making their wholesale slaughter all the more devastating. Seeing and hearing them clowning, singing, marching, and slogging through the trenches feels as modern as the full-color/full-sound film footage I grew up watching from the Vietnam War. Jackson has shrunk the distance of a hundred years considerably.
Of course, the Really Big Thing is the new film, 1917, which opened in late December and has snagged two Golden Globes—including for Best Picture—and 10 Oscar nominations, again including for Best Picture. The film has already earned double its production costs at the box office, quite a feat having been in general release for less than a month.
1917 is remarkable in several ways, not the least of which is the production’s intense attention to detail down to the regimental buttons on the soldiers’ tunics. One feature of the film that is always mentioned in reviews is how director Sam Mendes and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, utilized lengthy shots and careful editing to create the illusion that the entire two-hour film was one continuous take of the two main characters making their way across No Man’s Land to deliver a message to a battalion calling off an attack the next morning.
The film is visually stunning—alternately lush and horrifying, but always riveting. It doesn’t hurt the film’s popularity that a director of Mendes’s stature could attract very big name stars to appear for tiny cameos. So in between your immersion in the vivid imagery of the film, you find yourself playing the parlor game, “Hey, isn’t that _______ ________ from ___________?”
What’s most extraordinary to me, however, is that Mendes has managed to enthrall millions of American moviegoers with a Rather Small Story from a Rather Big War that most know very little about. Much easier to attract American audiences to a Tom Hanks film about the D-Day invasion or a splashy production of the Dunkirk debacle. World War II, the conventional wisdom holds, puts American backsides in theater seats. But the First World War?
Turns out the answer is yes.
There’s a peculiar storytelling challenge for those seeking to render the First World War in film or on the page. (And yes, I’m aware of my temerity in lumping myself with Peter Jackson and Sam Mendes.) Unlike the American Civil War with its grand cavalry charges or the Second World War with its battles of movement, the First World War consisted of men sitting underground being shelled—except for those rare occasions when they were ordered to emerge from the ground and walk through acres of barbed wire at entrenched machine guns.
The First World War was the first industrialized war that rendered violence, chaos, and death on an unimaginable scale. The Battle of the Somme, for example, on its first morning of 1 July 1916, witnessed 720,000 British and French soldiers attacking 330,000 Germans along a 24-mile front. 20,000 men would die on the Somme in the first 90 minutes. And that was just the British. For three square miles of territory. By the time the Somme Offensive ended four months later, 4.5 million men had taken part, of which 1.2 million ended up as casualties. And this was only one of many grand offensives of the War.
Telling this story of the first day of the Somme, as I did in my first novel, None of Us the Same, is rather tricky. In its entirety, the battle is just too much to digest without losing the true human experience—it becomes big numbers and lines on maps. After some false starts, I told myself, “Tell the story as if your characters are viewing it through a soda straw—the 50 yards either side that they could actually see and experience.” That seemed to work well for me in the end.
For Peter Jackson, he set about telling the story of the entire conflict—a daunting undertaking—by making the soldiers captured on film more human and closer to us emotionally through careful use of new film technology. Then, he let the soldiers tell their own stories, from raw volunteers to damaged veterans.
Sam Mendes went about his task by slicing off a small story from a huge tale. He focused on a single immediate task given to two soldiers. He then weaves and meanders this simple and small story across a panoramic landscape of violence and devastation, all the while keeping his audience grounded in the life-or-death struggle of his two protagonists. It’s a hero’s journey, one of the oldest archetypes in literature. And it works remarkably well.
It’s more than a century since the guns fell silent in France. As someone who’s spent the last four years immersed in the so-called War to End All Wars, I couldn’t be happier it’s having an American Moment.
Lest we forget.
To celebrate the First World War’s deserved attention, my first novel, None of Us the Same, is now on sale in ebook for only 99 cents. Please help spread the word. Especially if you find yourself in conversation about 1917 or They Shall Not Grow Old, please consider recommending my books, also including Truly Are the Free and No Hero’s Welcome, to further our collective learning about The Great War. There are so many stories left to be told…