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READ: Unit 6 Overview — World War I

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is the meaning of the last line of Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, which goes like this: “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”? How does it demonstrate Owen’s perspective of the war?
  2. What seem to be some explanations for the origins and spread of the First World War, according to the article?
  3. What hope did Woodrow Wilson and Ho Chi Minh share at the end of the First World War?
  4. What problems or challenges did the war seemingly create?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. What evidence does this article give for why we might call this conflict a world war? In what ways does it seem that it was global?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Unit 6: World War I

Painting of injured soldiers walking forward by holding on to the shoulder of the man in front of them. Gauze is wrapped around their heads and eyes making it difficult for them to see.
By Trevor Getz
It was global. It was total. It was terrible. It was the First World War. Unfortunately, it was not the "War to End all Wars".
The English poet, Wilfred Owen, enlisted in the British army to fight in the First World War in 1915. He joined a stream of tens of millions of soldiers and sailors—almost exclusively men—going to the front lines and fleets of the world's great powers to fight. The British Empire alone recruited more than five million men from Britain, a million and a half from India, and hundreds of thousands each from their colonies in Africa, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. France, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia similarly dug deep into their far-flung empires. Add to that the recruits in small European countries. By the war's end, millions more from the United States, Japan, Brazil, and dozens of other countries had joined the global conflict.
Photo of Indian soldiers sitting on the ground eating chapati.
Soldiers of the Indian Army, serving in the military of British Empire in Europe, during the First World War. Here they are eating chapatis they have made for lunch, just some of the South Asian cuisine popularized in Britain by soldiers such as these during the war. Public domain.
These soldiers and sailors had many motives. Owen and many others joined partly because they felt a duty to fight for their countries. Nationalism, you will remember, was a deeply held ideal in the era of the Long Nineteenth Century that led up to the events of 1914. When asked why they served, many recruits simply said that their country called them. In most of history, anyone who talked of being "called" was usually about to start a new religion, but now it was the language of nationalism.
Owen heard his country's call. But experiencing the war, he heard only the screams of those who had died all around him. His attitude about service and duty quickly changed. In late 1917, he wrote one of his most famous poems, a cry against the war, and the world that had made it. He described an attack with gas weapons that left men around him dead and dying, "gargling from froth-corrupted lungs" and "obscene as cancer." In a world that had not yet invented film and television, this was graphic, disturbing violence. He ended the poem with, "The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori". The foreign words are Latin for "It is sweet and fitting to die for your country". Owen had bitterly called out nationalism as a deadly lie told to young men with good intentions.
In this unit, we'll see that Owen was not the only person changed by the First World War. We'll ask whether we should see this conflict as a threshold event—a turning point—in world history. This question asks us to understand the First World War in terms of both continuity and change. To do so, we have to look at both the origins of the war, and its effects.

Origins of the war

In the first half of the unit, we ask why the First World War happened. Was it really just the result of an assassin's bullet, publicly and dramatically finding its target in the Grand Duke in Sarajevo? Or was the conflict a result of longer, darker trends underneath the surface of the happy story we told ourselves. Did the rise of the new communities, known as nation-states, also create the environment for waves of nationalism that produced hatred and anger between nations? We'll think about the transformations in production and distribution that defined the Industrial Revolution. Was this marvelous new capacity for more consumer goods also what gave us more and bigger weapons for killing each other? As railroads and airplanes become remarkably fast tools of communication that increased networks, did they also deliver conflict to new destinations? Did capitalism, together with vast empires, create the capacity for total mobilization and almost endless resources for fighting?
Painting of a dead soldier lying on a stretcher in the mud.
The Dead Stretcher Bearer (1916) by Gilbert Rogers conveys the horrors endured by those who fought in the First World War. Public domain.
To answer these questions, supporting evidence can be found in many places. There are clues from Sarajevo, where the war actually started; there are the reports and policies of governments of other European countries that were also there at the start; and there is data about popular opinion from those places. But we also find that we have to look at a bigger scale to understand the origins of a war that was bigger than anyone could have imagined. So, in this unit, we also examine the world of 1914 from non-European perspectives. We'll study how and why Asian, African, Latin American, and other societies participated in what was, in the end, a truly global conflict.

Experiences and outcomes

Once we see how the war began, we can begin to understand the changes that followed. In the second part of the unit, we think about the individuals who served, like Owen, and the Indian soldiers in the image above. We'll discuss how their experiences changed the way they saw the world around them. We also consider how whole societies were transformed by the perhaps first "total" war in history. It involved almost everyone in many of the countries that participated, even if they were not fighters themselves. Finally, we will see how the First World War led to massive events, such as civilian mass-murders made possible by modern weapons, as well as social and economic upheavals like the Russian Revolution.
Photo of men, women, and children working in a munitions factory. Rows upon rows of deadly weaponry line the factory floor.
An industrial munitions factory in Britain. Did industrialization, and the ability to create huge amounts of deadly weaponry, contribute to the origins of the First World War? By Nicholls Horace, public domain.
In the last part of this unit, we look at the enormous impact of the First World War. We see how the end of the war, and the suffering it caused, inspired some to imagine a world where such terrors could not happen again. Many joined U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his hope that this war would be "a war to end all wars". It also led people in oppressive situations to pursue a world of freedom and opportunity. One of these men was a young Vietnamese scholar who would become the anti-colonial leader Ho Chi Minh.
But the way the war ended also produced new problems, including the disillusionment of a whole generation who continued to suffer from the physical and psychological wounds of the war described in Owen's poetry. Countries, too, were all wounded by the war, especially—but not only—those that lost. Germany's humiliating defeat fueled a desire to regain power that would lead the world into a Second World War. In Unit 7, we'll get into the connection between these two wars, the era of hope and depression between them, and the start of the Second World War in 1939.
In that year, Wilfred Owen would have been 46 years old. However, not long after being hospitalized for wounds in 1917, when he was also diagnosed with shell shock, he resumed fighting in the First World War. He was killed in battle at the age of 25.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and world History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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