Wednesday, February 10, 2016

"The War To End All Wars:" In the Fields and the Trenches: The Famous and the Forgotten on the Battlefields of World War I by Kerrie Logan Hollihan

On Monday, June 29, 1914, newboys on American and European streets shouted headlines with reports of an assassination. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Duchess Sophie, shot, point blank, in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Most Americans and many Europeans didn't dwell on the killings. Bosnia, tucked into the southern end of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, seemed remote. Irene Curie, a French student, looked forward to her vacation at the seaside. British student Ronald Tolkien was writing letters to his fiance' in a fanciful language he called Elvish. Across the Atlantic, high school sophomore Ernest Hemingway was working at his family's summer home. Seventeen-year-old Quentin Roosevelt, son of Theodore Roosevelt, had friends coming to celebrate the Fourth, and comic Buster Keaton was making people laugh on New York's vaudeville stages.

But the "Great War," the war "to make the world safe for democracy," "the war to end all wars" was already inevitable, the jigsaw pieces of European alliances falling into place as if predetermined, and the lives of many young people--the famous, the future famous, and the unknown--were forever changed, as was warfare itself. On the ground, cavalry contended with tanks, submarines sank ocean liners full of tourists, civilians feared homegrown terrorists and spies, and in the air, the first fighter planes and bombers went to war. Powerful artillery limited ground warfare to deadly trench warfare in which waves of soldiers went "over the top" to be slaughtered by the thousands in the machine gun crossfire.

It was the cause celebre, and young people from two continents volunteered for military service. Those who could not join sought to serve in non-combat roles. Irene Curie, daughter of the famed Marie and Pierre Curie and a future Nobel Award winner, turned from physics to nursing and eventually, working with her mother, manned the mobile x-ray trucks which allowed surgeons to save lives. With three of his Oxford College chums, Ron Tokien, the J. R. R. Tolkien, left his language studies to rush to enlist in the Signal Corps, but eventually served in the infantry, surviving his time in the bloody trenches to go on to write of Middle Earth warfare between orcs and fairies, hobbits and dragons. Superstar of the 1910s, baseball pitcher Christy Mathewson, already in his thirties, signed up along with star Ty Cobb, contracting the tuberculosis which eventually cost him his life.

Too young for the army, teenager Ernest Hemingway served as a Red Cross ambulance driver for three weeks, heroically saved one soldier under fire, and spent the rest of his time recovering from wounds, charming and romancing the nurses, and living to gain fame as a foremost novelist. Deadpan comic Buster Keaton was drafted out of his early Hollywood success, and with only two weeks of basic training was thrown into the fray in France, losing much of his hearing but living to become a silent movie star. Future president Harry S. Truman lived through gas attacks at the front to return home to Missouri politics, but "gentleman pilot" Quentin Roosevelt survived little more than the eleven days, the average for U. S. airmen dogfighting against the Red Baron.

There were lesser known and unknown young people who sought to serve. Henry Lincoln Johnson, led the African American "Hellfighters Division" in the homecoming parade and ultimately was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2015. "Aviatrix" Katherine Stinson, famed early barnstorming female pilot, was turned down for fighter duty in the air over France, but with her flying circus was put to work raising millions for Liberty Bonds and the Red Cross and finally made it to France as an ambulance driver and had just received been made airmail messenger for General Pershing's headquarters when she became a casualty of the 1918 influenza epidemic in Paris.

World War I changed everything, casting its shadow over the rebound hedonism of the roaring twenties and the Depression years to follow, and foreshadowing the Second World War to come, impacted the lives of the lost and those who lived on far into the twentieth century.

Kerrie Logan Hollihan's In the Fields and the Trenches: The Famous and the Forgotten on the Battlefields of World War I (Chicago Review Press, 2016) gives young adult readers an up-close-and-personal look at some of real people, noted and unknown, for whom the "Great War" was the determining experience of their lives. Told with an engaging immediacy which will appeal to readers and backed up for research with ample photos, a timeline, end notes, bibliography, and index, this book is useful for supplementary reading for world history students and history buffs alike. “A worthwhile addition to every library collection and a natural for military-history enthusiasts,” says Kirkus Reviews.

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