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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Yearlong project to highlight lasting influence of WWI


A postcard depicts life at the front for Russian soldiers during World War 1. (Rare Book Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

German-born American historian Fritz Stern called World War I “the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.”

At least 10 million men died – and more than twice that number were severely injured – in a conflict that at its inception was supposed to be, as British writer H.G. Wells called it, “The War That Will End War.”

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson justified America’s entry in the war as necessary to make the world safe for democracy, but both Wilson’s and Wells’ idealistic visions were soon shattered. Instead of peace, World War I led directly to Soviet communism, the rise of Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust.

A century after its start, the war is spawning a yearlong conversation on the Carolina campus that seeks to increase awareness and interest about the war and its sweeping legacy.

That conversation, called the World War I Centenary Project, is sponsored by the Institute for the Arts and Humanities and the College of Arts and Sciences at Carolina and King’s College London (see for information about the UNC-King’s Strategic Alliance).

English professor John McGowan, the former director of the institute, said there is a general lack of awareness in the United States about the enormous influence that World War I had on both domestic and foreign policy in the last century, which the yearlong project will seek to remedy.

The war reshaped international trade and foreign policy, advanced science and medicine, and generated new perspectives in literature, art and music, McGowan said.


When the Boys Come Home poster from the United War Work Campaign between 1914 and 1918. (Rare Book Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

More than 20 courses will be offered to explore those topics during the 2014–15 academic year, from first-year seminars to graduate courses in the departments of History, Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures, Communication Studies, Dramatic Art, English and Comparative Literature, Public Policy and Music.

McGowan, who will be teaching a course on “20th Century British Literature and Culture: the Lasting Impact of World War I,” said his fascination with the war intersects with his scholarly interests in modernism and the Irish rebellion of 1916, which was the most significant uprising against British rule in Ireland since the rebellion of 1798.

Modernism, McGowen said, was a philosophical movement that challenged traditional forms of art, architecture, literature and religious faith arising from widespread changes in Western society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“This movement turned against what the modernists thought of as the sentimentalism of 19th-century literature and art,” McGowan said. “There was a kind of optimism that permeated the 19th century because of the emergence of technologies that made life easier for people. Technology meant progress. Then, in World War I, technology was turned to the purposes of mass murder.”

Modernism may have begun before World War I, McGowan added, but many people have argued that World War I “put the stamp on the idea that beneath the veneer of civilization was actually this horrible savagery.”

The World War I Centenary Project is also part of an ongoing University-wide effort, initiated last year with the 100th anniversary celebration of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” to integrate courses for undergraduate and graduate students with performances and exhibitions sponsored by Carolina Performing Arts, Ackland Art Museum, PlayMakers Repertory Company and University Libraries.

In November, for instance, the Department of Dramatic Art Kenan Theatre Company will produce “Johnny Johnson,” a 1936 musical written by North Carolina playwright Paul Green (who fought in World War I) about a naïve, idealistic man who goes off to fight in the war despite his pacifist views.

“We will be doing this production with students from both dramatic arts and the music department,” McGowan said.

In September, PlayMakers will perform a reading, to be followed by discussion, of “Not About Heroes,” a drama by Stephen MacDonald about the real-life friendship between poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The story of their friendship is told in a series of flashbacks and is narrated by Sassoon, who survived the war in which Owen was killed.

Although the calendar of events spans the 2014–15 academic year, the campus conversation about World War I began in February when University of Chicago historian Michael Geyer offered a revisionist account of the causes of World War I for the 2014 Mary Stevens Reckford Lecture in European Studies.

The three empires of Eastern Europe – Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian – were destined to crumble because nationalism was Europe’s future, Geyer argued. World War I could only have been avoided if a non-violent means for dissolving those empires had been found.

World War I also ushered in the devastating consequences of “total war,” which erased the traditional distinction between combatants and non-combatants, McGowan said, and two speakers have been invited to campus to talk about how the war affected that development.

In October, Tammy Proctor, chair of the Department of History at Utah State University and the author of “Civilians in a World War, 1914-1918,” will deliver a lecture focusing on the war for non-combatants, and in November, Jennifer Keene of Chapman University will talk about the war for combatants.


A poster of Uncle Sam encourages people to buy government bonds during World War I. (Rare Book Collection, Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

The war’s devastating effects also produced some major medical advances, McGowan said.

“Huge advances in plastic surgery were made because so many of the soldiers came back from the war maimed in such horrible ways. So modern plastic surgery begins from World War I,” McGowan said.

“Another advance is psychiatric treatment of war trauma. The term they used was ‘shell shocked,’ which we call post-traumatic stress syndrome, or just PTSD, today,” he said. “And a third thing was learning to treat injuries resulting from chemical warfare, since World War I was the first time that chemical weapons were used.”

Sanders Marble, a senior historian in the U.S. Army’s Office of Medical History, will explore this topic in more detail during a campus lecture in September. He is the author of the forthcoming book “From Trenches to Hospitals: U.S. Army Medics in World War I.”

McGowan said the centenary project will also delve into explaining how the current turmoil in the Middle East has its roots in World War I, when the entire map of the Middle East was redrawn after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

In March, Michael Reynolds, a professor from the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, will speak about that connection. Reynolds is the author of “Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908–1818.”

World War I is a daunting subject, McGowan said, and one worthy of a yearlong exploration. The project will end in May with a conference to be held at King’s College London examining the various ways that World War I has been remembered and its legacies that have shaped the world of today.

“It is absolutely true that World War I set the stage for the whole 20th century and shaped all the subsequent history,” he said, “and there are so many different aspects of those influences that we are trying to present to the general public.

“But what I really love about the project is how we are trying to integrate the courses that students are taking with a larger intellectual conversation on campus expressed through these lectures, exhibits and performances.

“Our goal is to make this conversation as wide-ranging as possible so that everybody gets caught up in it.”

Read more about the yearlong project.