Recalling the Great War

An understanding of the Great War cannot be reached with even the most thorough review of its facts and details. All those bits of information must be fit together into a unified "complete picture" so a person can comprehend the stupendous and complicated events of 1914-1918. This process of grasping and apprehending a subject is also a personal process. This second point is critical because it means we insert our own desires, wishes and fears into our search for understanding.

Some Symbols of the Great War

Take one universal fear. The Great War throws Death in our faces -- Death as addressed by that First World War veteran and poet ee cummings: "How do you like your blue-eyed boy now Mr. Death?" Mr. Death unarguably broke new ground for himself in 1914 when he placed mankind's industrial know-how at the services of our ingrained destructive impulse. The frontline soldier of the war had to face him every day and we present day readers cannot turn a page written on the war without confronting his handywork, facing repeated reminders of our own mortality. It's not hard to fathom, then, that our feelings on the subject of death have to help shape our interpretation of the war.

This brings us to the purpose of this Great War Society website on The Legends and Traditions of the Great War. This is not intended to be a collection of charming stories and myths, at least as in the "myth" of the flat earth. These articles are all serious efforts at demonstrating how individuals and groups beginning during the war itself and carrying on ever since, have tried to gain an understanding of what was happening on the battlefields of Europe, the peripheral theatres and the homefront. Our Soldiers' Tales and Words and Phrases of War selections show how -- on a daily basis -- the troops in the trenches dealt with the frightening whirlwind that had embraced them. The Pantheon of Heroes, Villains and Gargoyles depicts, like the famous wax museum, individuals whose character won them acclaim in dealing with adversity, as well as those whose failings infamously threatened the good order of society, even civilization itself. Articles on Transcendent Places and Events show were the spirit and essence of a group or nation where captured as for South Africa at Delville Wood on the Somme, or as did the Taxi Cabs of the Marne for France.

But these selections are really pieces from a bigger landscape. Over the last 80 years there has been sort of a competition among all the individualized attempts at understanding the Great War. As the 21st Century dawns, there are still three competing interpretations of what happened in 1914-1918. Every World War I historian who has to venture an inch beyond factual recitation into interpretation seems to have to commit to one of these points of view. Since these concepts are so pervasive in World War I literature, we have chosen to organize much of this website around them in a group of three sections we call Recalling the Great War:

  • The War was a Demonstration of Sacrifice and Remembrance
  • The War was a Vast Cock-Up
  • The War was a Great Betrayal
Presented below is a table that outlines each of these approaches. If you find yourself puzzled by one of our articles or by something you are reading, check this table and I think you will find some clues to help you in the decoding process.

Theme 1. Sacrifice & Remembrance 2. The Vast Cock-Up 3. The Great Betrayal
Propagated By Governments, Church, Veterans Groups, Official Historians Well-Educated, Academics, Journalists, Artists [including many official war artists] Revolutionaries, Traumatized Veterans & their Families, Modernists, Avant Garde
The War Was A Call to Duty & A Great Trial Mega-Mistake Meaningless Waste
The Dead Were Fallen Heroes Slaughtered Sheep Victims of Manifest Evil
Survivors Benefited from Comradeship & Doing Duty Lucky to get out Alive Suffered Irreparable Damage: Emotional and Psychic if not Physically
Relationship of Soldiers to Society Home front & Trenches are One Soldiers Alienated from Homefront Soldiers Sacrificed by Their Society
War & Tradition Soldiers Fought to Uphold Tradition Tradition Caused the War Tradition Rejected
Characteristic Quote From the War Poets In Flanders fields the poppies Blow McCrae Now all roads lead to France where heavy is the tread of the living and the dead returning lightly dance Thomas If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied Kipling
Representative Classic Films Dawn Patrol;
Sgt. York
All Quiet on the Western Front;
Oh! What a Lovely War
Paths of Glory
Representative Classic Memoirs Storm of Steel ... Junger Memoirs of an Infantry Officer ... Sassoon Testament of Youth ... Brittain

For more Legends and Traditions of the
Great War return to the
Contents Page

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For further information on the events of 1914-1918 visit the homepage of
The Great War Society

Additions and comments on these pages may be directed to: Michael E. Hanlon ( regarding content, or to Mike Iavarone ( regarding form and function. Original artwork & copy; © 1998-2001, TGWS.