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Cent ans après : la mémoire de la Première Guerre mondiale

Elli Lemonidou

The Transnational History of the Great War

Jay Winter


The article begins with a periodization of historical writing about the Great War. In the first decades after the end of the conflict, historiography in all its forms followed traditional patterns of historical narrative and was dominated by people who had direct or indirect experience of the events. The 1960’s saw a major historiographical shift with the introduction of social history in WWI studies. Some years later, at a time dominated by the international peace movement, a new generation of scholars turned decisively the focus on the human dimension, distancing themselves from traditional war narratives. In the very last decades, the transnational approach, thoroughly analyzed in the text, has become more and more widespread in WWI studies, as the only way to address the universal dimensions of that war and to understand some of its aspects that far exceed the national level of analysis.

L’article commence par une périodisation de l’écriture historique sur la Grande Guerre. Dans les premières décennies après la fin du conflit, l’historiographie sous toutes ses formes suivait les modèles traditionnels du récit historique et était dominée par des personnes qui avaient une expérience directe ou indirecte des événements. Les années 1960 ont connu un important changement historiographique avec l’introduction de l’histoire sociale dans les études sur la Première Guerre mondiale. Quelques années plus tard, à une époque dominée par le mouvement international pour la paix, une nouvelle génération d’érudits a tourné de manière décisive la focalisation sur la dimension humaine, se distanciant des récits de guerre traditionnels. Dans les dernières décennies, l’approche transnationale, analysée en profondeur dans le texte, est de plus en plus répandue dans les études de la Première Guerre mondiale, comme le seul moyen d’aborder les dimensions universelles de cette guerre et de comprendre certains de ses aspects qui dépassent de loin le niveau national d’analyse.

Texte intégral

Transnational History

1A transnational history of the Great War is a narrative of the Great War written by transnational historians. To understand what this means, we need to provide a sketch of three previous generations of historical writing on the Great War.

  • 1 Prost, Winter 2004.

2The first was what I will term “the Great War generation”. These were scholars, former soldiers and public officials who had direct knowledge of the war, either through their own military service or through alternative service to their country’s war effort. They wrote history from the top down, by and large through direct experience of the events they described. The central actor portrayed in their books was the national or the imperial state, in its dirigiste forms at home or at the front. The most voluminous of these efforts was the 133-book effort to write the economic and social history of the war sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace1. Most of these tomes were penned by men in essential positions, insiders who ran the war at home or at the front, and who had to deal with its aftershocks.

  • 2 Andréadès 1928.

3Les Effets économiques et sociaux de la guerre en Grèce was published in 1928 under the direction of Andréas M. Andréadès2. Polymath, he was economist, historian, philologist, literary critic and man of the theatre, all under different pseudonyms. He had taken a doctorate in law in Paris in 1899 and was a specialist on banking and economic issues.

4Like Andréadès, the authors of all the books in the Carnegie project were well-placed men with vast academic and administrative experience. They were authorities, who knew what they were talking about. They also knew what they did not want to talk about –their own mistakes of blindness or responsibility for the manifold disasters on both the winning and the losing sides.

5This was evidently a literature of self-justification, a posture adopted in virtually all official histories of the armed forces. Many of them were written by former soldiers for the benefit of the various national staff colleges, trying one at a time to frame “lessons” for the future. Besides, these works were frequently highly technical and so detailed that they took decades to appear. The delay diminished their significance for planning the next war in more efficient ways.

6The second generation may be called the generation “fifty years on”. This group of historians wrote in the 1960s. And they wrote not only the history of politics and decision-making at the top, but also the history of society, defined as the history of social structures and social movements. Of course the two kinds of history, political and social, went together, but they were braided together in different ways than in the interwar years. Many of these scholars had the benefit of sources unknown or unavailable before the Second World War. The “fifty year rule” enabling scholars to consult state papers meant that all kinds of documents could be exploited by those writing in the 1960s, which threw new light on the history of the war.

7In the 1960s, there was much more use of film and visual evidence than in the first generation, though in the interwar years battlefield guides and collections of photographs of devastation and weaponry were produced in abundance. After the Second World War, the age of television history began and attracted an audience to historical narratives greater than ever before. This became evident in the size of the audience for new and powerful television documentaries of the war. In 1964, the BBC launched its second channel with the monumental twenty-six-part series The Great War, exhaustively researched in film archives and vetted by an impressive group of military historians. Many of the millions of people who saw this series had lived through the war. In 1964, the young men who had fought and survived were mostly above the age of seventy, but what made the series a major cultural event was that the families of the survivors, and of those who did not come back, integrated these war stories into their own family narratives. The Great War thus escaped from the academy into the much more lucrative and populous field of public history, represented by museums, special exhibitions, films, and now television. By the 1960s, the Imperial War Museum in London had surpassed many other sites as the premier destination of visitors to London. It remains to this day a major attraction in the capital, just as does the Australian War Memorial, an equally impressive museum and site of remembrance in the Australian capital, Canberra.

8There was more than a little nostalgia in the celebration by survivors of “fifty years on”. By 1964, the European world that went to war in 1914 no longer existed. All the major imperial powers that joined the struggle had been radically transformed. The British Empire was a thing of the past; so was the Algérie française and the French mission civilisatrice in Africa and South Asia. The German empire was gone, and so were most of its eastern territories, ceded to Poland and Russia after 1945. Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia were small independent states. And while the Soviet Union resembled Czarist Russia in some respects, these continuities were dwarfed by the massive transformation of Soviet society since 1917.

  • 3 Larkin 1964.

9The nostalgia of 1964 was, therefore, for a world which had fallen apart in the Great War. For many people, the blemishes and ugliness of much of that world were hidden by a kind of sepia-toned reverence for the days before the conflict. “Never such innocence, / Never before or since”, wrote Philip Larkin in a poem whose title referred not to 1914, but to the more archaic “MCMXIV”. This poem was published in 19643.

10In many historical writings, as much as in historical documentaries, the dramatic tension derived from juxtaposing this set of pre-lapsarian images with the devastation and horror of the Western front, and with the sense of decline, a loss of greatness, which marked the post-1945 decades in Britain and France, not to mention Germany and Italy. Whatever went wrong with the world seemed to be linked to 1914, that is to the time when a multitude of decent men went off to fight one war and wound up fighting a much more terrible one.

11Decencies were betrayed, some argued, by a blind elite prepared to sacrifice the lives of the masses for vapid generalizations like “glory” or “honour”. This populist strain may be detected in much writing about the war in the 1960s, and in the study of social movements which arose out of it. The fiftieth anniversary of the Gallipoli landing provoked a surge of interest in the Great War in Australia and New Zealand, where the loss of the battle was eclipsed by the birth of these two nations. Similarly heroic were narratives of the Bolshevik Revolution, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 1967. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many scholars of the second generation told us much more about the history of labour, of women, of ordinary people during the conflict than had scholars working in the interwar years.

12The third generation may be designated as the “Vietnam generation”. Its practitioners started writing in the 1970s and 1980s, when a general reaction against military adventures like the war in Vietnam took place in Britain and Europe as well as in the United States of America. This was also the period in Europe when public opinion turned against the nuclear deterrent and when the 1973 Middle Eastern war had dangerous effects on the economies of the developed world. The glow of the “just war” of the Second World War had faded, and a new generation was more open to a view that war was a catastrophe to both winners and losers alike.

13This was the environment in which darker histories of the Great War emerged. There were still scholars who insisted that the Great War was a noble cause, won by those who had right on their side. But there were others who came to portray the Great War as a futile exercise, a tragedy, a stupid, horrendous waste of lives, producing nothing of great value aside from the ordinary decencies and dignities thrown away by blind and arrogant leaders.

  • 4 Fussell 1975.

14The most influential works were written by three very different scholars. Paul Fussell, a veteran of the Second World War wounded in combat, produced a classic literary study in 1975, The Great War and Modern Memory4. He was a professor of literature, who fashioned an interpretation of how soldiers came to understand the war they found in 1914-1918 as an ironic event, one in which anticipation and outcome were wildly different. It was a time when the old romantic language of battle seemed to lose its meaning. Writers twisted older forms to suit the new world of trench warfare, one in which mass death was dominant and where, under artillery and gas bombardment, soldiers lost any sense that war was a glorious thing. Fussell termed this style the “ironic” style and challenged us to see war writing throughout the xxth century as built upon the foundations laid by the British soldier writers of the Great War.

  • 5 Keegan 1976.

15Sir John Keegan produced a book a year later which paralleled Fussell’s. An instructor in the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, but a man whose childhood infirmities ensured he would never go to war, Keegan asked the disarmingly simple question: “Is battle possible?” The answer, published in The Face of Battle in 19765, was perhaps yes, long ago, but in the xxth century, battle presented men with terrifying challenges. The men who fought at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 could run to the next hill to save their lives. Foot soldiers converging on Waterloo four centuries later could arrive a day late. But in 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, there was no escape. Given the industrialization of warfare, the air above the trenches on the Somme was filled with lethal projectiles from which there was no escape. Mass death in that battle and in the other great conflict of 1916 at Verdun, pushed soldiers beyond the limits of human endurance. Nothing like the set battles of the First World War followed in the Second World War, though Stalingrad came close to replicating the horror of the Somme and Verdun. Here was a military historian’s book, but one whose starting point was humane and to a degree psychological. The soldiers’ breaking point was Keegan’s subject. With power, subtlety, and technical authority, he opened a new chapter in the study of military history as a humane discipline.

  • 6 Leed 1979; Turner 1967.

16In 1979, Eric Leed, a historian steeped in anthropology, wrote a similar path-breaking book: No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I, borrowed subtly from the work of the anthropologist Victor Turner6. He had examined people in a liminal condition, no longer part of an older world from which they had come, and unable to escape from the midpoint, the no man’s land, in which they found themselves. That was the emotional landscape of the trench soldiers of the Great War. They were men who could never come home again, for whom war was their home, and who recreated it in the years following the Armistice. That was the world of shell-shocked men, but also that of the Freikorps, militarized freebooters of the immediate postwar period, who prepared the ground for the Nazis.

  • 7 Aron 1966.
  • 8 Sheehan 2008.

17In all three cases, and by reference to very different sources, the subject at hand was the tragedy of the millions of men who went into the trenches and who came out, if at all, permanently marked by the experience. They bore what some observers of the survivors of Hiroshima called the “death imprint”, that is the knowledge that their survival was a purely arbitrary accident. We may see there some traces of the antinuclear movement, putting alongside one another Japanese civilians and Great War soldiers. The moral and political differences between the two cases are evident, but the wreckage of war, so these writers seemed to say, is at the heart of the civilization in which we live. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that these three books, alongside others of the time, helped create a tragic interpretation of the Great War; one in which victimhood and violence were braided together in such a way as to tell a fully European story of the war; one to which the founders of the European Union clearly reacted. From the 1970s on, European integration was an attempt to move away from the notion of the nation-state as that institution which had the right to go to war, as Raymond Aron put it7. The result has been a progressive diminution of the role of the military in the political and social life of most European countries. James Sheehan asked the question in a recent book: Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?  8. The answer is, they and most (though not all) of their leaders have fled from the landscape of war so devastatingly presented in the works of Fussell, Keegan, Leed and others.


19Here we are in a fourth generation of writing on the Great War. I would like to term it the “transnational generation”. This generation has a global outlook. The word “global” describes both the tendency to write about the war in more than European terms and the tendency to see the conflict as trans-European, trans-Atlantic, and beyond. That was the first war among industrialized countries to reach the Middle East and Africa, the Falkland Islands and China, and to draw soldiers into the epicenter in Europe from Vancouver to Cape Town, to Bombay and to Adelaide. That was a war that gave birth to the Turkey of Atatürk and to the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin. Demands for decolonization arose from a war that had promised self-determination and had produced very little of the kind. Economic troubles arose directly out of the war, and these were sufficiently serious to undermine the capacity of the older imperial powers to pay for their imperial and quasi-imperial footholds around the world.

  • 9 For some discussions of the emergence of transnational history, see: Iriye 2004; Bayly et al. 2006 (...)

20A word or two may be useful to distinguish the international approach, common to many of the older histories of the war, from what I have termed the “transnational approach”. For nearly a century, the Great War was framed in terms of a system of international relations in which the national and imperial levels of conflict and cooperation were taken as given. Transnational history does not start with one state and move on to others, but takes multiple levels of historical experience as given, levels which are both below and above the national level9. Thus the history of mutiny is transnational, in that it happened in different armies for different reasons, some of which are strikingly similar to the sources of protest and refusal in other armies. So is the history of finance, technology, war economies, logistics, and command. The history of commemoration also happened on many levels, and the national is not necessarily the most significant, not the most enduring.

  • 10 Manela 2007.

21The peace treaties following the Great War show the meaning of the transnational in other ways. Now we can see that the war was both the apogee and the beginning of the end of imperial power, spanning and eroding national and imperial boundaries. Erez Manela’s work on “the Wilsonian moment” is a case in point10. He reconfigures the meaning of the Treaty of   Versailles by exploring its unintended consequences in stimulating movements of national liberation in Egypt, India, Korea, and China. Instead of telling us about the interplay of Great Powers politics, he shows how non-Europeans invented their own version of Woodrow Wilson in their search for a kind of self-determination that he, alongside David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, was unprepared to offer to them. Who could have imagined that the decision these men took to award rights to Shandung Province, formerly held by Germany, not to China but to Japan, would lead to major rioting and the formation of the Chinese Communist Party?

22Many historians of the revolutionary moment in Europe itself between 1917 and 1921 have approached their subject as a transnational phenomenon. After all, both revolutionaries and the forces of order who worked to destroy them were well aware of what may be called the cultural transfer of revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary) strategy, tactics and violence. In recent years, these exchanges have been analyzed at the urban and regional levels, helping us to see the complexity of a story somewhat obscured by treating it solely in national terms. Comparative urban history has established the striking parallels between the challenges urban populations faced in different warring states. Now we can answer in the affirmative the question as to whether there is a metropolitan history of warfare. In important respects, the residents of Paris, London, and Berlin shared more with one another than they did with their respective rural compatriots. These experienced communities had a visceral reality somewhat lacking even in the imagined communities of the nation.

  • 11 Winter 1999.

23We must be sensitive to the way contemporaries used the language of nation and empire to describe loyalties and affiliations of a much smaller level of aggregation. A journalist asking British troops on the Western front whether they were fighting for the Empire got a “yes” from one soldier. His mates asked him what he meant. The answer was that he was fighting for the Empire Music Hall in Hackney, a working-class district of London. This attachment to the local and the familiar was utterly transnational11.

24Another subject now understood more in transnational than in international terms is the history of women in wartime. Patriarchy, family formation and the persistence of gender inequality were transnational realities in the period of the Great War. Furthermore, the war’s massive effect on civilian life precipitated a movement of populations of staggering proportions. Refugees in France, the Netherlands and Britain from the area occupied by the Western front numbered in the millions. So did those fleeing the fighting in the borderlands spanning the old German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. One scholar has estimated that perhaps 20 % of the population of Russia was on the move, heading for safety wherever it could be found during the Great War. And that population current turned into a torrent throughout Eastern Europe during the period of chaos surrounding the Armistice. What made it worse was that the United States closed its gates to such immigrants, ending one of the most extraordinary periods of transcontinental migration in history. Thus population transfer, forced or precipitated by war, transformed the ethnic character of many parts of Greece, Turkey, the Balkans and the vast tract of land from the Baltic states to the Caucasus. Such movements antedated the war, but they grew exponentially after 1914. This is why it makes sense to see the Great War as having occasioned the emergence of that icon of transnational history in the xxth century, the refugee, with his or her pitiful belongings slung over shoulders or carts. The photographic evidence of this phenomenon is immense.

  • 12 Cavafy 2004.

25The cutting edge history of the Great War is transnational in yet another respect. We live in a world where historians born in one country have been able to migrate to follow their historical studies and either to stay in their adopted homes or to migrate again, when necessary, to obtain a university post. Christopher Clark was born in Sydney, studied in Berlin and finished his studies in Cambridge, where he still teaches. John Horne was born in Adelaide, trained at Oxford and teaches in Dublin. Sean McMeekin studied at Berkeley and taught at Koc University. Norman Stone was trained at Cambridge and now is at Bilken University in Turkey. Fifty of the seventy authors of the three-volume Cambridge History of the First World War, which I edited, are transnational scholars, practicing history far from their place of birth, and enriching the world of scholarship thereby. Seeing the world in which we live at a tangent, in the words of Cavafy12, opens up insights harder to identify from within a settled world. The world of scholarship today may be described in many ways, but the term “settled” is not one of them. This unsettledness is a major advantage, one which will enable more transnational histories to emerge alongside national histories, and for each to enrich the other.

26It is important to repeat that these new initiatives in transnational history have built on the work of the three generations of scholars that preceded them. The history of the Great War that has emerged in recent years is additive, cumulative and multifaceted. National histories have a symbiotic relationship with transnational histories; the richer the one, the deeper the other. No cultural historian of any standing ignores the history of the nation, or of the social movements which at times have overthrown them. To do so would be absurd. No military historian ignores the language in which commands turn into movements on the field of battle. War is such a protean event that it touches every facet of human life. Earlier scholars pointed the way; we, transnational scholars, acknowledge their presence among us, in our effort to take stock of the current state of knowledge in this field.

The Historial Project

  • 13 Braudel 1949.
  • 14 Le Roy Ladurie 1983.

27There is a French dimension to the emergence of transnational history to which I would like to draw attention. Its origins may be located in the 1920s, when Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre came to Strasbourg to rekindle French scholarship there and founded LÉcole des Annales, a school of historical interpretation. Named after the journal they founded in 1929, this school practiced transnational history from the outset. Following in their footsteps, Fernand Braudel wrote a history of the Mediterranean13 and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie wrote on the history of climate14, neither of which being in any sense comprehensible within a national framework. Others pioneered work in population history and economic history, which are no respecters of national borders either.

28While those in the Annales tradition focused on the medieval and early modern periods, others in the 1980s and 1990s turned to the First World War. The occasion for one such fruitful initiative was clearly transnational. In 1986, local politicians in the département de la Somme in France were encouraged by the retired Minister of Defence Max Lejeune to fund the construction of a new museum of the Battle of the Somme. That is to create a war museum where it actually happened, in a department which had no other tourist sites within many kilometres. The battle was the most massive encounter of the British army in the war, and it engaged millions of German and French soldiers for six full months of futile combat, yielding little gain for the allies, but over one million casualties. Having a British, a French and a German dimension suggested the need to create a multinational museum of the battle, a rarity at the time. They approached me to offer a British perspective, not because I was British –I was born in New York but studied and taught at Cambridge for thirty years– but because I was the only historian of the Great War in Britain who could work in French. This brought me together with Jean-Jacques Becker, the distinguished French historian of the war, and Wolfgang Mommsen, from Düsseldorf.

29My contribution was both to help design the museum and to persuade the élus and the fonctionnaires of the Somme territory that to avoid early atrophy, a museum had to have an organic link to the academy. Otherwise, it would turn dusty and cold. The necessary link could be provided, I argued, by creating a research centre on the history of the First World War, before the museum was opened. Thus historians could help design the museum and then carry on the necessary work of locating its activities within the wider community of scholarship developing all over the world. In a parking lot in the French provincial city of Amiens, Max Lejeune, whose father fought in the war and came back a broken man, heard my plea and, to my immense surprise, accepted it. He included as a line item in the budget of the museum the existence of a research centre, to be funded annually on the provincial level. It retains this status to this day.

30My French colleagues were amazed that I had gotten that far, but were still not convinced that I could get the finest scholars from all over the world to join in the work of this centre. The fonctionnaires said there was only one way to find out. They gave me the money to run a meeting in Amiens, and low and behold, forty eminent First World War scholars turned up. At this point, French skepticism and cynicism gave way. I persuaded two young and very promising scholars, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker, to join the team and to take over running the research centre when the museum opened in 1992.

31Between 1989, when the research centre was launched, and 1992, when the museum was inaugurated –in the presence of Ernst Jünger, guest of honour, who had fought in Péronne seventy-six years before–, the research centre designed the museum, with the full support of the Somme’s autorities.

32The foundation of both this research center and this museum was a transnational project from the start. And there were two innovations in design. The first was the placement in the showcases of artefacts purchased in the vast antiquarian market selling real First World War memorabilia, organized on parallel shelves, first German, then French, then British, Dominions and Empire. This spatial contiguity of objects showed how similar were the cultural artefacts produced during the war across national boundaries. Already, this was daring, in that equating French and German propaganda stripped each of the label “good” and “evil”, so universally accepted at the time. What came to be called “cultures of war”, signifying practices enabling men and women to endure the cruelties and hardships of war, emerged visually in planning the museum. This is a theme Annette Becker and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau have made their own, and I am sure that they would agree that working with objects in the construction of the Historial de la Grande Guerre de Péronne changed the way they wrote and still write history.

  • 15 Dostoevsky 1957, p. 68.

33The second transnational aspect of the construction of the Historial is one I know personally. In 1986, just when starting the project, I took my family from Cambridge to Switzerland. Walking in Sils Maria was and remains one of the great pleasures of my life. Getting there from Cambridge is a two-day drive. We always stopped in the same village in Alsace, Kaysersberg, just to the North of Colmar. And from there we took a bit of time to see the Kunstmuseum in Basel. There I saw a painting that almost knocked me over. It was Hans Holbein’s Christ in the Tomb (fig. 1). Dostoevsky’s Prince Mishkin saw it too, a century before, and said it almost made him lose his faith15.

Fig. 1 — Hans Holbein, Christ in the Tomb (1522).

Fig. 1 — Hans Holbein, Christ in the Tomb (1522).

Oil and tempera on panel (30,5 cm × 200 cm; Kunstmuseum, Basel).

34What is amazing about this painting is its overwhelming horizontality. There are no angels, no Marys, no Joseph of Arimathea, no human or celestial figure accompanying the body of the dead Christ. This is a dead man, so realistically rendered that Holbein has shown the dislocation of his index finger in his crucified hand. This is also the purest painting of the Protestant Reformation: it is through faith alone that you can hold to the view that this dead man will rise in a day. Andrea Mantegna had opened this engaged with horizontality and Vittore Carpaccio explored this optic in Venice. But Holbein took it one step further. In the xxth century, Käthe Kollwitz explored the horizontal axis in her treatment of the grief of a widow in 1922 (fig. 2). As for me, I was writing about mourning in the Great War when Holbein’s image struck me with such considerable force. Here was the way the museum I had just begun to design had to be seen: through a downward vector, since horizontality was the language of mourning and verticality the language of hope.

Fig. 2 — Käthe Kollwitz, The Widow (1922). Woodcut from a portfolio of seven woodcuts and one woodcut cover.

Fig. 2 — Käthe Kollwitz, The Widow (1922). Woodcut from a portfolio of seven woodcuts and one woodcut cover.

© 2018 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

35Over the next years, that horizontal axis became the guiding principle of our work on the Historial de Péronne. In the first room, the exhibition separates points of conflict horizontally displayed with points of amity and commerce vertically displayed across national boundaries. Then comes the “hall of portraits”, with ordinary civilian life rendered vertically (fig. 3) and Otto Dix’s shocking series Der Krieg, rendered horizontally behind it (fig. 4). Turning to the first large exhibition room, which covers the years 1914 to 1916, we chose to use horizontality to portray the world of trench warfare as virtually identical for French, German and British soldiers. We did so by designing shallow dug-outs (fosses, in French) which resemble both archeological digs and shallow graves. We placed real artefacts in stylized poses, to avoid even the slightest trace of pseudo-realism, so that you can “really” see what the trenches were like (fig. 5). The third room is dominated by dugouts, covering the years 1916 to 1918. At the entrance, there is a visual syllogism: three dugouts are returned, one showing fire power, a second showing the frail defensive cover soldiers had and a third showing the outcome –surgery and medical repair. This last dug-out contains in particular the surgical kit of the French surgeon and writer Georges Duhamel and the flute which kept him sane between long bouts of surgery.

Fig. 3 — Vertical normality, horizontal horror. Portraits room.

Fig. 3 — Vertical normality, horizontal horror. Portraits room.

© Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, Somme.

Fig. 4 — Otto Dix, Der Krieg, Soldier with a Stomach Wound (1924).

Fig. 4 — Otto Dix, Der Krieg, Soldier with a Stomach Wound (1924).

Drawings © 2018 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Fig. 5a-b — The Horizontal axis: the kit of French and German soldiers in fossés.

Fig. 5a-b — The Horizontal axis: the kit of French and German soldiers in fossés.

© Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, Somme.

36There is much more to say about the museum. Its design won many European awards. But two points stand out: the relentless transnational approach to the design and the way in which the use of the horizontal axis –unique among war museums, I believe– provides a visual language of mourning. That is, after a conflict that took ten million lives, a transnational cloud of bereavement which covered many parts of the world after 1914.

The Great War and the Shaping
of the 
xxth Century

37The second step towards constructing a platform for transnational history grew directly out of the Historial project. At the opening of the museum in 1992, an American television producer saw what we had done and was determined to take our approach and turn it into a television series on the First World War. I joined him in this effort as co-producer and co-writer: the result was The Great War and the Shaping of the xxth Century, which was broadcast in 1996 and won a year later an Emmy award for the best television documentary of the year.

38This series displays an extended discussion of shell shock, revealing in one instance how transnational history profits from the existence of the vast visual archives of the war. These images, taken from French medical training films showing doctors what shell shock looked like, simply explodes any idea that you can write the history of psychological injury in wartime from a national perspective. I will return to the question of the incidence of this condition, but it is blatantly absurd to differentiate between a German, a British and a Turkish soldier driven mad by the war.

The Cambridge History of the First World War  16

  • 16 Winter 2014.
  • 17 Robert, Winter 1997.

39Since the appearance of the BBC / PBS series, I have been involved in two huge projects of transnational history. The first is a history of capital cities at war, focusing on Paris, London and Berlin17. We identified a level of war experience –the metropolitan experience– in which inhabitants of these three cities had more in common with each other than they did with their compatriots in farms a few hundred kilometres away. Exploring the vast archives of this subnational population enabled us to show with fine detail how the Central Powers lost the war on the home front, by failing to distribute goods and services effectively as between military and civilian claimants. In Paris and London, the well-being of the home population was roughly maintained, and in some cases improved, where after early 1916, Berliners faced increasing shortages of food and other vital commodities and had to break the law to stay alive. A thriving black market showed the failure of the state system of distribution. It was not the Allied blockade which destroyed the German home front. It was the irrational system of military dictatorship which brought the home front to its knees in the summer of 1918, precisely at the moment the German army was beaten in the field. Thus there was a stab in the back at the end of the war. The knife was wielded by Hindenburg and Ludendorff and the German military elite, whose remobilization of the German war economy ruined it, and ensured that when the March 1918 offensive came to a halt, Germany would lose the war. Studying this process on the local level went well beyond previous national histories, which conflate too many local variations to provide a sharply defined picture of what went wrong. The German war effort was destroyed from within. Only by comparative and transnational work, has this become clear.

40This finding has been reviewed and confirmed in the latest project in transnational history –The Cambridge History of the First World War. The structure of the work itself is transnational: there is not a single national chapter in the three volumes and all chapters are transnational in character. Thus there is a chapter on war crimes, but not on German atrocities in 1914; a chapter focusing on the maltreatment of civilians and the spread of detention camps straddling the globe, but not one on the Russian pogroms of 1915; a chapter on the Spanish influenza epidemic, but not one on its incidence in Britain; a chapter dedicated to shell shock, but not one on the British way of handling it. The first volume is entitled Global War, introducing the second dimension of transnational history –the escape from a sole focus on the Western front, or from treating the war as simply a reflection of the Franco-German or Anglo-German antagonism. The images used in a visual essay I wrote in the first volume provided photographic evidence of what global war looked like.

41Much of transnational history focuses on population movements, refugee flows and the transport of labour around the world. The Great War was probably the largest moment of displacement to date in global history: it occurred over a short time and after a thirty year period of out-migration from Europe to the Americas and the Antipodes, numbering perhaps thirty million people. The numbers on the move in the 1914-1918 conflict were greater still. There were seventy million men in uniform fighting usually at a considerable distance from home, and assisting them were millions of non-white labourers.

42The ethnic, racial and national mix of war was staggering in its dimensions. The illustrations show Africans from all over the continent in a German prisoner-of-war camp, with their nationalities displayed as a key (fig. 6). The encounter between a wounded Senegalese soldier and a German medical orderly on a French battlefield shows what imperial and transnational warfare was all about. The need for medical care brought together an Egyptian doctor and a Vietnamese labourer suffering from beriberi (fig. 7). The African contribution to the defence of France was saluted in popular culture too, sometimes in racial stereotypes, but at other times, with literally a touching affection.

Fig. 6 — French Imperial Soldiers in German POW Camp.

Fig. 6 — French Imperial Soldiers in German POW Camp.

Fig. 7 — Egyptian doctor treats Vietnamese labourer for paralytic beriberi.

Fig. 7 — Egyptian doctor treats Vietnamese labourer for paralytic beriberi.

43The unlikely juxtapositions of war were captured by soldiers themselves, some of whom produced photo albums for their families and perhaps also for their own reminiscence. The French physician docteur Beurrier captured his time on the Isle of Vido, dealing with the sick and wounded opposite the town of Corfu. His self-portrait opens his portfolio of photographs, many of which show dying or dead Serbian soldiers, with whom he had to deal daily. One he entitled Charron’s barque (fig. 8) shows the steady gaze of the physician. A thousand miles away, in Volhynia, on the Eastern front, a Jewish Viennese physician found himself in contact with a very different group of his co-religionists. The poor Jews of the Pale of Settlement had little in common with doctor Bardach, a painter as well as a photographer. He photographed them at prayer from a cultural distance. Examining Jewish prostitutes for venereal disease in this remote part of what is now Western Ukraine was an unlikely destination for a Viennese doctor. One can note the woman in the window on the right looking at prostitutes shielding their faces from the camera.

Fig. 8 — Dr Beurrier: Charon’s Bark (BDIC).

Fig. 8 — Dr Beurrier: Charon’s Bark (BDIC).

44The second facet of the world war which photographs highlight is the sheer variety of landscapes of battle soldiers and sailors faced for fifty months of combat. If we shift our optic away from the Western front at first, we can see vastly different topographies. We can see, for example, a Hungarian mountain corps unit scaling the sheer cliff faces of the Italian front. The freezing terrain of “the white war” is obvious in the image of Monte Pasubio, South of Rovereto, where intense fighting took place in 1916. Evacuating the wounded from this terrain was extremely difficult, as fig. 9 shows. The Eastern front was huge. To describe its variety is impossible, since its length would describe a line extending from Scotland to Morocco. Still doctor Barbach gives us some sense of its endlessness in his photographs, and also of the devastation while attending fighting in villages and towns all over what is now Poland and Ukraine.

Fig. 9 — Transporting the wounded on the Italian Front.

Fig. 9 — Transporting the wounded on the Italian Front.
  • 18 Kennedy 2014, p. 322.

45The air war created new possibilities and new vistas in which fighting took place. Bardach caught the mix of old and new in his photograph of horses dragging an airplane to a destination on the Eastern front (fig. 10). And Londoners would not have much difficulty in identifying the cigar-shape and huge size of the Zeppelin, which established civil defence as one of the prerequisites of states at war. The global reach of the naval war was truly extraordinary. The H.M.S. Inflexible started the war in the Mediterranean, helped sink two armoured cruisers during the Battle of the Falklands in 191418. In a photo, we can see her rescuing German sailors after the battle. In 1915, she shelled the Dardanelles, but was damaged by enemy fire. Back in service in 1916, she took part in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Nothing could better illustrate the global war than a picture showing a Japanese cruiser in protective duty off the coast of Vancouver.

Fig. 10 — Airplane hauled by horses, Volhynia.

Fig. 10 — Airplane hauled by horses, Volhynia.

Laeo Baeck Institute.

46Mud was the colour of much of the combat terrain of the Western front and of the men forced to fight there. We can imagine the odd character of a landscape resembling the dark side of the moon after a celestial flood. Horses sunk to their chests and men dwarfed by mountains of mud described a kind of war difficult to convey and even more difficult to endure. The “puncta” in photographs of the Western front arise from uncanny mixtures of the ordinary and the surreal. One of them shows a half horse in a tree and, in many instances, the suffering of animals brought out the humanity of soldiers, who could express emotion about horses more easily at times than about men. It is not at all surprising that there were charitable events at home to collect money for sick and injured horses. They were an integral part of the most industrialized war in history, not at all made redundant by the selective appearance of the tank, more readily accepted in Allied armies than in the Central Powers.

47The third way in which photographs can introduce us to the radically new character of the First World War is by revealing the extent to which the deployment of new weapons and new tactics challenged the laws of war. Flame-throwers were chemical weapons, but much more radical weapons were introduced early in the war. Under pre-war international protocols, the use of poison gas weapons was deemed illegal. Starting in 1915, all armies developed stockpiles of such weapons and deployed them. First came chlorine, then phosgene and then mustard gas. They all added to the horrors of the battlefield without changing the strategic balance in any sector. Their effectiveness depended more on the wind than on gas masks and other counter measures hastily adopted for men and animals alike. Medical photographs showed the ravages caused by these weapons and helped outlaw them after 1918.

48The treatment of civilians was just as worrying, in that they seemed to tear up the laws of war. They certainly were trampled on in the case of the abuse and murder of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Photographic evidence –some gathered by outraged German officers in Turkey– enables us to see the aftermath of the horror (fig. 11). Photographs also open up the world of humanitarian aid throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East, which was another element of the global war. Transnational generosity extended to many groups of refugees, those who had lost everything and were on the move by the millions during and after the war.

Fig. 11 — Armenian survivors, 1915, near Aleppo.

Fig. 11 — Armenian survivors, 1915, near Aleppo.

49There are visual essays accompanying the learned studies in the second volume on the state and in the third volume on civil society at war. They all illustrate the absurdity of approaching the history of a global war through national optics alone. It is not that national history is dispensed with. On the contrary, my claim is that by moving outside national boundaries, but taking account of regional, continental and transcontinental facets of war, scholars will write better national histories.

What are Some of the New Findings?

50We can enumerate at least five new findings allowed by transnational history.

511) Total war deaths have been significantly underestimated. This finding was possible only by investigating the premises on which all national studies of war casualties were made. Once we do so, we can see the omissions and errors which led many scholars (including the present writer) to miss roughly one million war-related deaths never before included in national accounts;

522) approximately one in five men wounded in the war suffered from psychological injuries. Disclosing this underestimation fundamentally changes our understanding of the extent to which the war created an army of disabled men whose disabilities were not disclosed, treated, or compensated by pension payments. Perhaps 500 000 men in Britain case and 6 million world-wide suffered from lingering psychological or neurological damage in the post-war decades. This hidden army of the wounded were treated by families, like those of Pat Barker and Doris Lessing, whose writings about the war generation are fundamental sources for the extent to which women’s lives were disturbed profoundly by the need to care for men broken by the war;

  • 19 Kennedy 2014.

533) Germany did not lose the war because of the Allied blockade or due to the strength of the Royal Navy, but due to its catastrophic domestic management of the war economy. This finding of several chapters in the Cambridge History shows that hunger in the Central Powers arose from within, but was exacerbated from without. This is a reversal of older interpretations –German and British– which saw the blockade as strangling the Central Powers. To a degree this was true, but only after the Armistice. And when the blockade continued until June 1919, it constituted a war crime –war against the old and the sick at the time of the worst influenza pandemic in history. In effect, as Paul Kennedy argues19, compared to the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War, sea power was a marginal force in the Great War. He will not win friends in the Admiralty with that argument, but it will stand nonetheless;

544) the fourth finding worth noting is that the Armenian genocide is a central part of the narrative of the Great War. Once we escape form focusing solely on the Franco-German or Franco-British embrace, we can consider the war as producing disasters all over the world, not least among which was the murder of over one million Armenians.

55What made it part –indeed an essential part– of total war is that a dictatorship at war used the occasion to take a long-standing ethnic conflict and to finish it, just as the Nazis sought to finish the “Jewish problem” in the 1940s. Murderous violence happened before the First World War in Anatolia and before 1941 in Europe, but in 1915 and 1941, both the Ottoman Turks and the Nazis aimed and successfully carried out a programme of extermination to finish off the enemy within;

565) the fifth worthy of note is that the war did not end in 1918, but the violence it unleashed in what has been called the “shatter zones of empire” carried on well into the 1920s –in Ireland, in Palestine, in Turkey, in India, in China, in Egypt. The most important transnational feature of the period of the Great War was its porous boundaries; no 1815 or 1945 here, not even a 1989. Ethnic, national, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence went on and on, describing the landscape of what Pasternak called the ice age.

  • 20 Meyers 2013.

57Has that ice age vanished? Yes and no, as John Horne shows in his accounting chapter in the third volume of the Cambridge History of the First World War. What was thinkable and tolerable in the sphere of violence was transformed by the Great War, the first fully industrialized war in history. Verdun and the Somme transformed what we understand by the term “battle” and the sheer weight of bereavement and of the care of the mutilated transformed what we mean by “victory”. The British poet Ted Hughes put it many years ago that the Great War was a defeat on whose neck someone placed a victory medal20. I would adjust that phrase slightly to say that the Great War was a common catastrophe, a transnational catastrophe, the consequences of which we live with to this day.


Andréadès 1928 = Andréadès M. Andréas, Les Effets économiques et sociaux de la guerre en Grèce, Paris, PUF, 1928.

Aron 1966 = Aron Raymond, Peace & War: A Theory of International Relations (trans. by Richard Howard and Annette Baker Fox), New York, Doubleday, 1966.

Bayly et al. 2006 = Bayly Christopher Alan et al., “AHR Conversation: On Transnational History”, American Historical Review, 111/5 (2006), p. 1441-1464.

Braudel 1949 = Braudel Fernand, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’epoque de Philippe II, Paris, Armand Colin, 1949.

Cavafy 2004 = Cavafy C.P., The Canon (trans. by Stratis Haviaras), New York, Hermes Publishing, 2004, p. 110.

Dostoevsky 1957 = Dostoevsky Fiodor, The Idiot (trans. by Eva M. Martin), London, Dutton, 1957.

Fussell 1975 = Fussell Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Heilbron et al. 2008 = Heilbron John et al., “Toward a Transnational History of the Social Sciences”, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 44/2 (2008), p. 146-160.

Iriye 2004 = Iriye Akira, “Transnational History”, Contemporary European History, 13 (2004), p. 211-222.

Keegan 1976 = Keegan John, The Face of Battle, London, Allen Lane, 1976.

Kennedy 2014 = Kennedy Paul, “The war at sea”, in Jay Winter (ed.), The Cambridge History of the First World War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014, vol. 1, p. 321-348.

Larkin 1964 = Larkin Philip, “MCMXIV”, The Whitsun Weddings, London, Faber & Faber, 1964.

Leed 1979 = Leed Eric, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Le Roy Ladurie 1983 = Le Roy Ladurie Emmanuel, L’Histoire du climat depuis l’an mil, Paris, Flammarion, 1983.

Manela 2007 = Manela Erez, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Meyers 2013 = Meyers Jeffrey, “Ted Hughes: War poet”, Antioch Review, vol. 71, no. 1 (2013), p. 31.

Prost, Winter 2004 = Prost Antoine, Winter Jay, Penser la Grande Guerre, Paris, Le Seuil, 2004, p. 18.

Robert, Winter 1997 = Robert Jean-Louis, Winter Jay, Capital Cities at War, 1914-1919. Paris, London and Berlin, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2 vols, 1997 and 2007.

Sheehan 2008 = Sheehan James, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 2008.

Turner 1967 = Turner Victor, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1967.

Winter 1999 = Winter Jay, “British Popular Culture in the First World War”, in Stites Richard, Roshwald Aviel (eds.), Popular Culture in the First World War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 138-159.

Winter 2014 = Winter Jay (ed.), The Cambridge History of the First World War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014.


* * *


The Great War, BBC, 1964.

The Great War and the Shaping of the xx  th Century, PBS, 1996.


1 Prost, Winter 2004.

2 Andréadès 1928.

3 Larkin 1964.

4 Fussell 1975.

5 Keegan 1976.

6 Leed 1979; Turner 1967.

7 Aron 1966.

8 Sheehan 2008.

9 For some discussions of the emergence of transnational history, see: Iriye 2004; Bayly et al. 2006; Heilbron et al. 2008.

10 Manela 2007.

11 Winter 1999.

12 Cavafy 2004.

13 Braudel 1949.

14 Le Roy Ladurie 1983.

15 Dostoevsky 1957, p. 68.

16 Winter 2014.

17 Robert, Winter 1997.

18 Kennedy 2014, p. 322.

19 Kennedy 2014.

20 Meyers 2013.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — Hans Holbein, Christ in the Tomb (1522).
Crédits Oil and tempera on panel (30,5 cm × 200 cm; Kunstmuseum, Basel).
Fichier image/png, 327k
Titre Fig. 2 — Käthe Kollwitz, The Widow (1922). Woodcut from a portfolio of seven woodcuts and one woodcut cover.
Crédits © 2018 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Fichier image/png, 519k
Titre Fig. 3 — Vertical normality, horizontal horror. Portraits room.
Crédits © Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, Somme.
Fichier image/png, 339k
Titre Fig. 4 — Otto Dix, Der Krieg, Soldier with a Stomach Wound (1924).
Crédits Drawings © 2018 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
Fichier image/png, 629k
Titre Fig. 5a-b — The Horizontal axis: the kit of French and German soldiers in fossés.
Crédits © Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, Somme.
Fichier image/png, 798k
Titre Fig. 6 — French Imperial Soldiers in German POW Camp.
Fichier image/png, 713k
Titre Fig. 7 — Egyptian doctor treats Vietnamese labourer for paralytic beriberi.
Fichier image/png, 559k
Titre Fig. 8 — Dr Beurrier: Charon’s Bark (BDIC).
Fichier image/png, 394k
Titre Fig. 9 — Transporting the wounded on the Italian Front.
Fichier image/png, 355k
Titre Fig. 10 — Airplane hauled by horses, Volhynia.
Crédits Laeo Baeck Institute.
Fichier image/png, 557k
Titre Fig. 11 — Armenian survivors, 1915, near Aleppo.
Fichier image/png, 222k

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