Tag Archives: WWI

How We Got Here #30

how we got here_new

Check out the latest episode of the history podcast:  Marco Werman of PRI’s The World interviews James David Robenalt about his new book The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage during the Great War. Robenalt is a Cleveland lawyer with deep roots in Ohio. He was lucky enough to get his hands on a microfiche copy of Harding’s love letters to his mistress; the originals are still under seal in the Library of Congress. The resulting tale is full of surprises, about Harding, about his lover Carrie Phillips, and about the politics and foreign relations of the day.


Armistice Day

It’s 90 years since the end of the fighting on the Western Front. There’s great stuff  from Clark Boyd and Carol Hills about WWI veterans and their letters home on PRI’s The World today. There’s tons of stuff on the BBC website too.  I did a segment about the end of WWI for my recent series on how wars end and it got me fascinated at the way historical memory is formed.  Historian Dan Todman, who’s written a book called The Great War: Myth and Memory, has an interesting piece at OpenDemocracy on how World War One is remembered. He notes the divergence between what he calls “the public and academic discourses about the 1914-18 war.”   It’s fascinating reading.


All 5 parts of How Wars End are now online. I’ll try to blog some reflections and extras (ie good stuff that didn’t make it into the radio stories) when I get a chance. Let me know what you think.


I’m not the only one at PRI’s The World obsessing about WWI. My colleague Carol Hills has launched a blog called World War 1: American Soldier’s Letters Home.  It’s based on her grandfather’s letters home from France nine decades ago. Here’s a taste from October 8, 1917:

Since I wrote you last saying how wonderful the weather was it hasn’t stopped raining for a minute and we are living and working in a perfect sea of mud and have no chance to get dry or warm unless you go to bed which isn’t all that it might be as the tents are rather fragile and the only other accommodations are under ground.We have too, for the last few days been working rather hard so you can imagine our state, just walking, shivering cakes of mud.

I recently found out that my own (British) grandfather served on the Western Front and at Gallipoli. But as far as we know there’s no trove of letters. Thanks for this Carol. I look forward to diving in.

Hall of Mirrors

I made it to the Chateau de Versailles today. It is something else. Massive, opulent, beautifully restored. And very very crowded. I survived the masses and recorded some sound and got to stand in the room where the Versailles Treaty was signed in 1919. The Hall of Mirrors has 17 huge windows and 17 huge mirrors facing those windows, as well as countless chandeliers, velvet-covered stools, fancy busts, gold hinges, marble corners. Even with the throng of tourists, and youngsters on school trips, and their guides peppering them with facts, it was possible in the shimmering, twinkling light bouncing off all the reflective surfaces to glimpse a sense of stillness every once in a while as the movement in the galleries ebbed and flowed. You could imagine the tense and solemn occasion of the signing…just. 

The Paris peace talks will loom large in my story about how WWI ended; it’s impossible to tell the tale of why the shooting stopped and what happened next without them. There are many books on the topic but two relatively recent ones which have been enormously helpful to me are Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919 (published in the UK as The Peacemakers) and Zara Steiner’s The Lights that Failed (about the period 1919 to 1933).  I had the chance to interview both historians on this trip. I am struck by how hard each has worked to get inside the minds and the times of the figures to whom it fell to try to bring order to an international system that had pretty much collapsed.  By the way, both authors, and the military historian Hew Strachan, whom I also interviewed this week, strenuously refute the old notion that the Versailles Treaty somehow led inevitably to WW2. That’s just too simplistic a reading of what happened between the wars for them. Anyway, lots to chew on. I will have my hands full trying to distill it for radio.


Hall of Mirrors from outside

Hall of Mirrors from inside

And some pics from earlier in the week:


Graves and cyclists in Ypres


The strangest thing I saw all week (also in Ypres). What is this?



 Oxford students all dressed up for exams

 In the trenches at the Imperial War Museum

In Flanders Fields

Spent the day in Ypres/Ieper about which many people more eloquent than I have already expounded. I’m glad I went. It truly is like a giant graveyard, not just the city itself but the entire Salient where the two sides bogged down in their respective trenches from 1914 to 1918 amid unprecedented and colossal bloodshed. I will spare you my adventures on Belgian public transportation trying to reach “Hill 62” and Sanctuary Wood where I had hoped to see the trenches which have been preserved since the war. I didn’t get quite that far. But I did spend a day in a place that evokes as well as anything the pain and loss and madness of what was truly a global war. At the In Flanders Fields museum in the old Lakenhalle in the Grote Markt a temporary exhibition Man Culture War tells just how global it was, not just geographically but in terms of the varied peoples who participated/were forced to participate.

The more I read about and understand this war, the more I reel from the figures. Can it really be that 60 million soldiers were mobilized, and of those 8 million died? (Michael Howard’s The First World War: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press.)

More to come on WWI as you know.

Meanwhile, lots of good stuff on today’s show. Don’t miss Katy Clark on Bagram, Lisa Mullins and Michael Scharf on Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s accusations against the Sudanese government, or Elizabeth Ross’s piece on the Russian bells at Harvard. Don’t miss the Boston’s Globe’s audio slideshow on the bells either, narrated by the wonderful Diana Eck.




I’m off on another reporting trip this weekend for my series on how wars end. This time I’m delving into why WWI ended when it did and what sort of peace followed.  I’ll be talking to historians in the UK,  touring battlefields in Belgium and visiting the Hall of Mirrors where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919.  The challenge with any radio piece is focus.  I need to figure out which parts of a large and complicated story to tell.  If you have thoughts on what’s most important about the way WWI ended, do post a comment. I’ll let you know how I get on.  My current reading:

Hew Strachan The First World War

Margaret MacMillan Paris 1919

Zara Steiner The Lights that Failed