World War I is often presented in superlative terms. It was “the war to end all wars” with fatalities to match. The Battle of the Somme had the largest number of casualties in British history; The Battle of the Argonne was the largest and deadliest battle in American history. With numbers so staggering, it can be hard to remember anything else.
“What can fall out of the picture is the fact that if there were 1.2 million Americans involved in the Battle of the Argonne; each of them was a person,” says history professor Warren Breckman. “To really think about that dimension is illuminating and brings something unusual to the study of a war.”
More than 100 years after Armistice Day, Breckman and the students in the Penn Global Seminar this spring looked at World I through the intersections of personal and public memory. After spending the semester studying historical and primary literature in the form of memoirs, The Great War in Memoir and Memory seminar ended with a one-week visit in May to the Western Front area of northern France and Belgium, organized by Penn Global’s Arielle Schweber.
Although Breckman previously taught the course during the centennial of the war, this spring marked the first time it had a travel component, which brought readings to life on in the fields of Belgium and the streets of French villages. This was something the students agreed transformed their understanding of the war’s continuing effect on the places where it was fought.
Breckman comes to this topic personally. His grandfather was a Canadian soldier in World War I, a cavalry member named George Hambley who kept a journal during his service. Now totaling about 20 volumes and kept in a Manitoba archive, Hambley’s writing is considered by many historians to be among the best diaries of a Canadian soldier.
“Unlike a lot of veterans, he talked readily and incessantly about his experience,” says Breckman, who is now working on a book about his grandfather during the war.
Monuments and memory
World War I was the primordial catastrophe of 20th-century history. For those who passed through it, the war was transformative and led to an outpouring of memoirs and fictional accounts written by participants. In its wake, it also produced new forms of public commemoration and memorialization: tombs to the unknown soldier, great monuments, soldiers’ cemeteries, and solemn days of remembrance. The class looks at the war through this lens.
“I want these students to think deeply about the personal dimensions or the experiential dimensions of warfare, to understand something about the long-term consequences of war,” he says.
During the trip, the class had jam-packed days as they traveled to battlefields in the Somme region: to Verdun, to Vimy Ridge, to cemeteries, memorials and museums built by Allied nations on symbolically important ground.
But some of the most poignant moments came in spots off the beaten path, Breckman says.
“One day, we went to an out of the way American cemetery near closing time. As we were talking and looking around, a bugle starts and out comes a Frenchman who oversees the cemetery, and he lowers the American flag as this bugle was playing,” Breckman says. The caretaker invited two of the students to help fold the flag.
“We were all deeply moved by this Frenchman fulfilling his duty each day, carefully folding the American flag in a remote corner of Northern France all these years after the war’s end,” he says.
For many, the most meaningful experience of the trip came in a small village of Iwuy, where Breckman’s grandfather and his fellow Canadian cavalry men fought to liberate the town.
‘A landscape saturated with history’
The Canadian cavalry made one of the last cavalry charges in Western European history against German machine guns holding up the Allied advance. Many of Breckman’s grandfather’s fellow soldiers—and their horses—died in that charge. A local historian in Iwuy wrote a book about the liberation of the village, and Breckman’s grandfather’s journals were key to his research. In 2018, Breckman and his family were invited by the village’s history association to a commemoration.
“It turned out to be a big event and very moving,” Breckman says. “They unveiled a monument to mark the battle, and, lo and behold, my grandfather’s image was on it.”
This visit, Breckman and his class spent the better part of a day in Iwuy, meeting officials at the town hall, meeting with high school students, being greeted like celebrities with a big banner welcoming them to town. They even made the local news.
They went to the cemetery right beside the field where the cavalry charge occurred, and Breckman read around 10 pages from his grandfather’s diaries to the class and the tour guides.
“He’s describing all these horses dying, and they’re kicking around in the field. It’s really pretty shattering stuff, and everyone was weeping,” Breckman says. “And there’s this field now, an innocent farmer’s field. But you see the ridge where the machine guns were, and there were 100,000 Allied troops that couldn’t move forward because of the machine guns. And the cavalry had to make this charge.”
They also met up with a man who was driven to find the one and only tank that went missing in the Battle of Cambrai. He tracked it down and built a museum around it.
“The whole point is this is a landscape that is saturated with a history that these people are living in,” Breckman says. “We can go to these great monuments, these famous memorials and things that big nation states have built, but to go to a local town—just one of hundreds of towns—and see these people trying to preserve this memory and the history that matters to them. For the students, it was really meaningful.”
“History lives on in the people”
Everything rising senior Sophie Quaglia knew about World War I, she’d learned from Virginia Woolf. The English major from Philadelphia says she was drawn to the The Great War in Memoir and Memory seminar because she wanted to learn more about the war from a personal perspective.
“I was surprised by how connected everything that we had studied in the course was to what we were seeing on the trip,” she says. “Seeing it first-hand was so cool, and it wasn’t something that I ever could have anticipated. Reading the books in class, I know what they were saying, but I didn’t truly understand until I was there.”
She also was pleasantly surprised by the kindness of the French, who tend to get a bad rap on their treatment of tourists.
That day in Iwuy was a highlight for her, she says.
“My takeaway was definitely related to how alive the memory of the war is there, and the way that they honor history was shocking coming from America,” she says. She grew up in the heart of the historic area of Philadelphia. “I know what it’s like to live in a place where they truly do make an effort to honor history, but being in France was nothing like I’ve ever seen,” she says. “History really lives on in the people, and they make an active effort to honor history in such a thoughtful way.”
Ashwarya Devason, a rising senior majoring in biochemistry, gender studies and neurobiology, from Riambel, Mauritius, was drawn to the course because she’s a native French speaker but has never been to France. She also was interested in learning more about the history of medicine through the lens of World War I and was intrigued by how the class looks at the war from a perspective of memory.
Visiting the various cemeteries was a moving experience, she says, but spending time in the town of Iwuy was a true highlight.
“Meeting those locals and being able to talk to them and see how the war has impacted their lives, that is an experience I would never have had without a Penn Global seminar,” she says. “You can be a tourist, you can go visit all the sites, but, due to Professor Breckman’s personal connections, we were able to meet so many amazing locals who are working so hard to preserve the cultural history of World War I in their town.”
Farmers in the area still dig up grenades and other live ammunition as they plant their fields, she says, and there is a special truck that comes by to pick them up. As the students toured one of the sites near Verdun, they suddenly started hearing what sounded like bombs very close by.
“They told us that they were actually detonating the bombs and the grenades that they continue to find in the area, like hundreds of them weekly,” she says. “They were detonating them so close to where we were visiting, and it was such a surreal experience, knowing that the war has been over for so many decades, and that there’s still so much live ammunition there. I was very surprised.”
Visiting places they read about in the course made a huge difference in comprehending the scope of the war, she says.
For one assignment, students had to select a diary from an individual who had a role in World War I and perform an analysis of their experience. Devason chose the diary of a nurse who was working in the village of Arras, and by total coincidence the seminar stayed in that very town during the trip.
“I felt so connected to the town and, when I saw Arras on the trip schedule that was finalized, it was mind blowing because I was walking on the same streets that nurse was walking on,” she says.
Jiayi Li, a rising sophomore from Beijing, majoring in history, signed up for the course as a World War I buff, but didn’t initially realize there was a travel component to the class.
A highlight for him was, like Devason, having his final paper come to life on the streets of Arras.
He’d written about Chinese workers on the Western Front and decided to search online and see if there happened to be any memorials or monuments to those workers in France. To his surprise, there was a monument to the workers in the very town the class was staying in. He asked the group’s tour guide to make an additional stop on their itinerary and the class spent a morning at the memorial.
Li was struck by all the attention dedicated to remembering individual soldiers. Travelling to the battlegrounds gave him a fresh insight into the lives of those involved in the conflict, he says.
“This being a history class and me being a history major, it’s important to see it in real life, and experience the emotions by being there,” he says. “You are immersing yourself into something bigger.”