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World War I: Time to Recall What This War Was About

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Iconic World War I poster showing Uncle Sam with the famous phrase "I want you ..." Prints and Photographs Division.
Iconic World War I poster showing Uncle Sam with the famous phrase “I want you …” Prints and Photographs Division.

Next April begins the centennial of America’s involvement in World War I, from April 6, 1917, when the U.S. Congress formally declared war on the German Empire. It concluded November 11, 1918, with the armistice agreement.

I am going to risk embarrassment by confessing that I have retained very little of what I learned about this war in school. I must have been taught all the basic information – how it started, why we were involved, what its legacies were. But unlike the Civil War and World War II, there is little I can discuss in an informed way about the 19 months America was engaged in this global conflict.

I am told by Library colleagues that this is not unusual. In the United States, what was known as “The Great War” over time has been less widely studied, written about and dramatized on screen than other conflicts.

But consider that during those 19 months, more than 1 million women joined the workforce and momentum built for suffrage; nearly 400,000 African-Americans volunteered and served overseas, along the way popularizing jazz in Europe; the U.S. transitioned from being a debtor nation to a creditor nation, for the first time establishing America as a global power; and the global mobilization and conditions of warfare led to the spread of influenza; between 1918 and 1919, Spanish Influenza, as it was known, killed more people than the war itself.

These are just a few of the economic, cultural and political influences of the conflict. Seems worth exploring further. And there is no time like the present to re-learn as much as I can about it.

The Library of Congress has digitized thousands of original materials from the World War I era and made them accessible for use. Even better, we have curators and historians here who have spent a lot of time learning and thinking about this period of history and what it means.

I have asked these experts to share over the next six months some of the stories and collection materials they think are most revealing about World War I, so that all of us can benefit from their expertise. Their insights will be posted on this blog with the header “World War I” between now and April of next year.

They will discuss firsts like the use of conscription, personal stories like the time a book saved a soldier’s life, and trends like marketing and music. Here, one of our experts, Ryan Reft, gives us a sneak peek into the Library’s WWI materials. 

WWI Video Transcript

In the meantime, I am going to explore some of the primary source materials in the Library’s collections – and you can too. Following are links and descriptions of some of the collections we’ll be digging into in the months ahead.

Following are links to sample World War I source materials available on the Library’s web site:

The Stars and Stripes
This collection presents the complete 71-week run of the World War I edition of the newspaper The Stars and Stripes. Published in France by the United States Army from February 8, 1918, to June 13, 1919, the eight-page weekly featured news, poetry, cartoons and sports coverage. Written by and for the American soldiers at the war front, the paper offers a unique perspective from which to examine the wartime experience.

World War I Sheet Music
From 1914 through 1920 the Library of Congress acquired more than 14,000 pieces of sheet music relating to what ultimately became known as the First World War, with the greatest number coming from the years of the United States’ active involvement (1917-1918) and the immediate postwar period. America’s entry into the war came at a time when popular songwriting and the music publishing industry, centered in New York’s Tin Pan Alley, was at its height and a new musical form known as “jazz” was emerging.

World War I Posters
This collection makes available online approximately 1,900 posters created between 1914 and 1920. Most relate directly to the war, but some German posters date from the post-war period and illustrate events such as the rise of Bolshevism and Communism, the 1919 General Assembly election and various plebiscites.

Federal Writers Project
These life histories were written by staff of the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project for the U.S. Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) from 1936-1940. Search on the phrase “World War I” to locate life histories that mention World War I.

Military Battles and Campaigns Maps
This collection contains maps showing campaigns of major military conflicts including troop movements, defensive structures and groundworks, roads to and from sites of military engagements, campsites and local buildings, topography and vegetation, including more than 20 military maps from World War I.

Newspaper Pictorials: World War I
This online collection is drawn from three primary sources: The War of the Nations: Portfolio in Rotogravure Etchings, a volume published by the New York Times shortly after the armistice that compiled selected images from their “Mid-Week Pictorial” supplements of 1914-1919; Sunday rotogravure sections from the New York Times for 1914-1919; and Sunday rotogravure sections from the New York Tribune for 1916-1919.

Chronicling America Historic Newspapers
This site of more than 10 million pages of historic American newspapers from 1836-1922 can be searched for World War I stories from around the country. A topics guide here includes several guides related to World War I under “War”

Veterans History Project
The Veterans History Project collects and preserves stories of wartime service from World War I to the present. This site provides a database of participating veterans, and digitized materials from the collection. Search the database to view more than 100 digital collections from World War I veterans.

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks. Detailed program information will be announced in the coming weeks and months.

Comments (4)

  1. My father George B. West, was wounded in WWI and I have his memoir of his service from 1916 in Texas through the Argonne in France.

  2. Mr. West – you may be interested in contacting our Veterans History Project, which collects first-person accounts and memorabilia from our nation’s war veterans. You can find more information here:

  3. I just wanted to point out that the war did not end on the armistice,there was fighting in Russia for another year. The war did not end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed by the belligerent parties.

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