Edward G. Lengel is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several books on military history, including To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 which the late John Keegan hailed as “a superior achievement.” A recipient of the National Humanities Medal, he has made frequent appearances on television documentaries and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize. His latest offering is A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, in which I was privileged to contribute an essay.
I recently caught up with him to ask a few questions about this new work and the state of First World War studies on the cusp of the Centennial Commemoration.
JP: What initially drew your interest to the First World War?
EL: Back in the early 1990s I became interested in reading World War I memoirs. I started with the “big three” British memoirs cited extensively by Paul Fussell in his book The Great War and Modern Memory: namely, Good-Bye to All That by Robert Graves; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon; and Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden. I found them fascinating, but did not stop there. Digging deeper, I found and read hundreds of memoirs, diaries, and letters of male and female participants in the war from all of the belligerent nations. Many are obscure and largely forgotten today. Yet aside from being often great works of literature, these books provide tremendous insight into the human condition—put simply, how do people respond to conditions that try them to the core, and overturn their terms of reference to the world around them?
In the process, I discovered that Fussell and others who have generalized about the “war experience”—or who have created the now-clichéd narrative of naiveté, horror, and disillusion—have vastly oversimplified what World War I meant to the ordinary people who experienced it. In truth, each person reacted to the war as an individual, and sometimes men or women who experienced the same events interpreted them completely differently. For me, in reading how individuals lived through 1914-1918, World War I no longer became a gruesome tale of mud, blood, and despair; it became a compelling human story. I’ve been hooked ever since.
JP: What can readers expect to find in these essays that previous volumes on the Meuse-Argonne have neglected?
EL: These essays explore the campaign from every possible angle. Some narrate particularly dramatic and important moments from the soldiers’ point of view. Others discuss problems of supply, logistics, and military administration. There are essays on tanks, airpower, artillery, and communications. And—importantly, I think—there are essays exploring in depth French and German participation in the campaign. The essays are heavily based in archival research and thus scholarly; but nevertheless all are readable and accessible for educated laypersons.
JP: Do you have high hopes for American participation in the worldwide centennial commemoration? Are there any events slated for the near future that you are particularly excited about?
EL: I will shortly be attending the inaugural reception for the American World War I Centennial Commission in Washington, D.C. I look forward to learning more about what is planned. I know that there are smart and enthusiastic people working on commemoration; but it remains an open question whether their good ideas will find an audience on Capitol Hill.
JP: If you had to pick two or three aspects of American involvement in WWI that most need further study, what would they be?
EL: First, American participants’ accounts—be they memoirs, diaries, or letters—need to be found, published, and made available to the public. The Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress is doing a good job of digitizing collections in its care and putting them online, but much more needs to be done. Second, every major American engagement needs to be thoroughly studied on the tactical level, making full use of the vast official records available at the National Archives in College Park, Md. (I hope to have made some progress toward this in my next book). Finally, it is my dream that some individuals or organizations would sponsor the research and publication of something amounting to an “official” history of American participation in World War I. Such a work has never been written.
JP: Do you have any other volumes on the First World War planned?
EL: I just finished a book tentatively titled “These Terrible Days”: The A.E.F. at War under French Command, November 1917-September 1918. If all goes well, it should be published next year by the University Press of Kansas.
I’d like to thank Ed for taking the time to answer these questions and for the opportunity to contribute an essay to the Companion! If you would like more information on the book, visit Wiley-Blackwell’s website at: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1444350943.html.