"Lexington Green," over at Chicago Boyz asks, "So, How Would You Teach a Course on World War I?" (June 1, 2006) and then describes a twelve week program of of topics and related readings. The audience will be "moderately smart" undergraduates, who are "not very knowledgeable about history." This is a wonderful post on this topic.
A number of thoughts spring to mind, especially Lord Acton's timeless dictum, "study problems, not periods". So, World War I should be taught as a tangle of problems within a framework of known facts (names, dates, locations and events, which WILL be on the test)...
... the theme of the class: This is where it all went wrong. ["You cannot understand the modern world without understanding something about WWI." - this quote is out of sequence, but I think it goes to his theme - Ben]
He'll spend one class on the collapse of "globalization I":
I would have the first class on the background of the countries, what they were about, covering France, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Ottoman Turkey.... The basic lesson will be that the empires could not stand the strain of modern war, and that the disintegrated remnants of these empires became more backward, violent, disorderly places, leading to further conflict and much harsher tyranny, which we lived with to this day. “Progress” did not ensue merely because the old order was swept away. Oddly, under all this strain, the democracies survived. What secret strength did they have? Remind them that Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire and has known little peace or order since WWI, etc. Background reading, Istvan Deak Beyond Nationalism: A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1848-1918
The second class would be about the British Empire and the world trading order that existed at the time, and the fact that up to 1914 we were experiencing "Globalization I", and that the war destroyed all that. The reading I would give them for that would be the two chapters from Herbert Hoover's memoirs, first volume Years of Adventure, the one about the coming of war, and the next one about the Americans in London dealing with the thousands of people stuck in Europe due to the war. These chapters are beautifully and simply written, and the kids would be able to understand them Hoover views the scene from a senior leadership position in the pre-1914 globalized world economy, and what it looked like as that world order went to pieces. The other thing I might give them is the chapter on trans-oceanic telegraphy, which the British controlled, from Headrick's The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century . Show them a map of the British empire in 1914. Show them the naval bases at Plymouth, Gibraltar, Suez, the Cape, Aden, Singapore. The worlds trade was done in British ships, guarded by the British navy, financed by British and other capital channelled through the City of London, insured by Lloyds of London, and the entire global economy was controlled from London, though New York was rising as a challenger. Background reading -- Avner Offer, The First World War: An Agrarian Phenomenon. You might give the kids the chapter on the Kaiser from Churchill's Great Contemporaries.
One more extract:
...Show how the entirety of the human and material resources available to the warring states were sucked into the struggle. Perhaps assign Junger's chapter from Storm of Steel where Junger’s men fight some Indians. The query, Junger's query, how is that these Rajputana Lancers have come halfway round the world to bash their heads against the Hanoverian Grenadiers? Talk about how the vast resources of the larger, extra-European world were being drawn into the fray by means of the Anglo-American command of the oceans.
O.K., just one more:
Note this short review by Eliot Cohen:
British Fighting Methods in the Great War. Edited by Paddy Griffith. Portland: Frank Cass, 1996, 191 pp. $42.00. Despite the writings of a few defiant historians outside the mainstream, the popular image of the British Army in World War I is one of soldiers exhibiting great valor sacrificed to the near-criminal stupidity of their high command -- "lions led by donkeys," in a memorable phrase. The current work makes an important contribution to a different view. The editor is a prolific and provocative historian of tactics, a subject disdained by too many students of strategic affairs, and he has assembled a group of thoughtful colleagues to explore the ways in which the British army adapted to the challenges of trench warfare. The reader comes away with two unsettling questions. If the British (and presumably other) European armies changed their approaches to war as quickly and well as is suggested, was the slaughter of World War I simply unavoidable? And if historians are only now unraveling the workings of battle in 1914-18, how certain can today's experts be that they fully understand the workings of modern warfare?
I had an email exchange with Griffith, and he responded:
"If historians are only now unraveling the workings of battle in 1914-18, how certain can today's experts be that they fully understand the workings of modern warfare?" = Still right on the button.
Absolutely right. The final lesson for anyone examining World War I, from any angle, is humility.
There are a lot of worthwhile book recommendations and ideas in the comments as well.