World War I : Views of War
When World War I broke out, Europe had not experienced a war involving all the major powers for nearly a century, since Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. As a result, people had an unrealistic view of warfare. Many expected the war to be short and romantic. Many men enlisted in the army because of patriotism or out of a desire to defend certain institutions. What the soldiers experienced changed their view of war forever.
Document A: Woodrow Wilson
On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war so that the United States could enter World War I. This excerpt from his speech gives some of his reasons.
The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifice we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.
Document B: Erich Maria Remarque
In the German novel All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque draws upon his own wartime experience of trench warfare.
No one would believe that in this howling waste there could still be men; but steel helmets now appear on all sides of the trench, and fifty yards from us a machine-gun is already in position and barking.
The wire entanglements are torn to pieces. Yet they offer some obstacle. We see the storm-troops coming. Our artillery opens fire. . . .
I see [a French soldier], his face upturned, fall into a wire cradle. His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.
Document C: Wilfred Owen
The English poet Wilfred Owen was killed in the trenches just one week before World War I ended. This excerpt from his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” describes a gas attack.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Document D: Maurice Neumont
France, 1918 This French poster is titled, “They Shall Not Pass, 1914–1918.” Translated into English, the text at the bottom reads,
“Twice I have stood fast and conquered on the Marne, my brother civilian. A deceptive ‘peace offensive’ will attack you in your turn; like me you must stand firm and conquer. Be strong and shrewd—beware of Boche [German] hypocrisy.”
1. What reasons does Woodrow Wilson (Source A) give for entering the war?
2. What emotions does the French poster (Source D) try to arouse?
3. Judging from Sources B and C, what was it like for the average soldier in the trenches? Explain how you think such experiences affected the average soldier’s view of war.