Great War Film Update

[after opinion is asked–and received–about their orders, a subordinate asks Major Whittlesey]

“Why are you here?”

“Life would be a lot simpler if we could choose our duties and obligations.  But we can’t.  We shouldn’t.  That’s why I am here.”

~  Major Charles Whittlesey in the DVD Lost Battalion

If graphic battle scenes don’t bother you, we highly recommend this DVD.  Rick Schroder’s performance is 10/10.  Based on a true story, this movie illustrates trench warfare.


My son really liked this series.  This was the first live footage of the war that we saw: it was impressive.  The color wasn’t as big of a deal to me.  Kenneth Branagh did a good job of narration.  

I appreciated the interviews with WWI veterans.   There were four or five octogenarians whose remarks were interspersed throughout the film.

After reading Guns of August it was great to see more shots of the main players.    

These eight one-hour programs have provided fodder for much discussion.  Yesterday my husband asked, “How do you think WWI would have ended if TR was president?”  

We had never before heard of the Armenian Genocide.  

Watching The Great War has been a great  though heavy companion to our reading.  Images are potent.  Reading about the horror is hard; seeing it in a soldier’s and children’s eyes, on the battlefield, in the ruined villages, is horrible.  The documentary utilizes archival footage and modern color images.  


The Guns of August

Before this summer the sum total of my knowledge of The Great War could be contained in a dozen words: assasination, Archduke, Ferdinand, Sarajevo, France, Germany, England, America, trench, doughboy, western, front. 

It was an ignorance which niggled and gnawed.  Not that I’ve had any occasion to answer the question, What was World War One about? – but I knew I didn’t know.  Now I have the opposite problem: I’m steeped in WWI and want to talk about what I’m learning, but it is a bit socially awkward to open conversations with discussions of lice in the trenches or the debacle of Gallipoli.

Reading Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August was my first autodidactic step.  Tuchman limited her narrative to the events surrounding August 1914, the first month of the war.  Her first paragraph was dazzling, holding promise not only for education but for delight.  The pulse of her prose was so strong that it felt like reading a current event.  The subject is wretched, but the writing is rewarding.

One rudimentary fact I learned from The Guns of August is how much the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 influenced the Great War.  Both France and Germany had been preparing for a re-match for decades.  France wanted the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine back; Germany expected France to attack and decided the best defense was to take the offense.

Here is a sparkling necklace of sentences and phrases from this superlative book.   

•   He knew how material success could gain public opinion; he forgot how moral failure could lose it, which too can be a hazard of war.

•   In the interim two men formed a trans-Channel friendship which was to serve as the first cable for the building of a bridge.

•   The new Czar, now forty-six, had learned nothing in the interval, and the impression of imperturbability he conveyed was in reality apathy – the indifference of a mind so shallow as to be all surface.

•   …with the bellicose frivolity of senile empires…

•   With their relentless talent for the tactless…

•   He must convince the present, measure up to the past, and speak to posterity.

•   Again and again the Germans returned to the assault, spending lives like bullets in the knowledge of plentiful reserves to make up the losses.

•   During August, under the terrible test of live ammunition, Joffre was to scatter generals like chaff at the first sign of what he considered imcompetence or insufficient élan. 

•   The vexing problem of war presented by the refusal of the enemy to behave as expected in his own best interest beset them.

•   In appearance a sharp, alert bantam, alive with energy…

•   With a rear commander’s contempt for a front commander’s caution…

•   Mr. Whitlock was to hear so often the story of one or another German general being shot by the son or sometimes the daughter of a burgomaster that it seemed to him the Belgians must have bred a special race of burgomasters’ children like the Assassins of Syria. 

•   Joffre arrived early in the morning … to lend him sangfroid out of his own bottomless supply.

•   Each with its burden of soldiers … the taxis drove off, as evening fell — the last gallantry of 1914, the last crusade of the old world.

Summer of the Great War

This summer I am reading through The Great War aka WWI.   I have never gotten beyond Sarajevo in my understanding and the time seems right to correct that.  My son Collin is joining me; we keep interrupting each other’s reading with a new insight just grasped.  He is currently reading Jeff Shaara’To the Last Man while I revel in Barbara Tuchman’s magnificent prose in The Guns of August.  My friend, LimboLady, getting some rest in between school sessions at our house, is engrossed in The Yanks are Coming which arrived from Amazon this morning. 

On our bookshelf, waiting to be read: 

Waiting at the library, all by the novelist Anne Perry:

World War I-related DVDs in our Netflix queue:


All Quiet on the Western Front

World War I in Color (Kenneth Branagh narrator)

Random Harvest

The Great War

Paths of Glory

The Fighting 69th

Sergeant York     

A World War I soldier’s blog:

WW1: Experiences of an English Soldier  “This blog is made up of transcripts of Harry Lamin’s letters from
the first World War. The letters will be posted exactly 90 years after
they were written.
To find out Harry’s fate, follow the blog!”

One Paragraph, Eight Hours


Move over, David McCullough.  Make room for another Pulitzer Prize winner, Barbara Tuchman, to stand next to you on the pedestal of my high esteem. 

Folks, I have found an  Important New Author. (“New to me,” she shrugs and grins.) I’ve only read the preface, the introduction and the first paragraph, but I am twitterpated. Tuchman’s success in writing, given in the preface, is “hard work, a good ear, and continued practice.” 

…hard work, a good ear and continued practice…

What does that look like, fleshed out?  It took Tuchman eight hours (!) to write this opening paragraph, all five sentences, of  The Guns of August.  

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of adminration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun.  After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens–four dowager and three regnant–and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries.  Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last.  The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.