'The Great War's' great impact

  • Updated: June 27, 2014 - 6:32 PM

Despite changing geopolitics, borders, warfare and culture, the conflict is obscure.

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U.S. Army troops stood in the trenches in France during World War I — the original forgotten conflict.

Photo: Associated Press,

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One hundred years ago today a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo. The killing triggered a cascade of cataclysmic decisions that sparked World War I, the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s Great Decisions dialogue.

The Korean War is often called “the Forgotten War,” and compared with World War II and Vietnam, the label applies. But World War I was the original forgotten conflict, despite its enormous scale and vast consequences. In a sense, it was long overshadowed by profound events it did much to cause.

But World War I is forgotten no more.

Weighty World War I analyses like “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” and others make Barnes & Noble look like it was stocked by a history major.

Young readers who encountered the children’s novel “War Horse” in the 1980s could see the story as adults on stage or on-screen in Steven Spielberg’s 2011 Oscar-nominated movie. Two years earlier “The White Ribbon,” a World War I-themed German movie, also received a nod for best foreign film.

On TV, aristocrats and domestics on the Emmy Award-winning “Downton Abbey” are shadowed by World War I, too.

And the artistic rediscovery of World War I even includes a locally composed opera — “Silent Night,” about a Christmas truce in the trenches — that won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

While World War II and the Great Depression may for a time have eclipsed World War I in America’s memory, those who fought it surely didn’t forget. Others were likely reminded by the era’s prolific artistic expressions.

More was written than seen. Sure, some grainy, grim photographs testified to the devastation, but despite being the first truly mechanized war, it was still a bit before other transformative technologies, like film and radio, really became mass media.

A lot of literature came from combatants. Ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway wrote “A Farewell to Arms.” Canadian military doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae’s poignant poem, “In Flanders Fields,” became a sensation — a source of sorrow and, at times, propaganda.

The poem’s poppies became a durable symbol of sacrifice, and soon came to represent the costs of all wars. So the specific link to World War I blurred.

Similarly, there are few monuments specific to the Great War, although the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier started out that way. There is no World War I memorial, for instance, on the National Mall in Washington, where so many connect with U.S. history. Instead, the National World War I Museum and Memorial is in Kansas City, which may be centrally located, but not central to those seeking U.S. history.

Other meaningful memorials can be found nationally and locally.

One, a modest yet profound bronze plaque, hangs at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church.

The only images are a grapevine border and an eagle clutching an olive branch above a U.S. crest (no compunction about mixing church and state back then). “In grateful recognition of the services rendered by the men of Hennepin Avenue Methodist Episcopalian Church in the World War 1914-1918,” it says, not foreseeing the bloody sequel just a generation later.

The next part is more powerful. All of the church’s World War I servicemen are mentioned. First, one notices the number: 180, from just one congregation. Next, the names, which as at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, elevate a memorial from the abstract.

Among the first names are plenty of Glenns, Williams, Roberts and other timeless titles. Others have faded or are forgotten, like Leverette, Acil and Seiforde.

The last names suggest a story, too: 23 are listed at least twice. Some, like Anderson and Larson, might imply Minnesota’s Scandinavian ubiquity. Others, however, like the two Yerxas, three Leslies and five Hammonds hint at brothers, or cousins, in arms.

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