The Winter Lecture Series at the Sherburne History Center continued Wednesday with an excellent presentation on the First World War by Renae Elert, a graduate student at St. Cloud State University and a self-confessed WW I obsessive.
Elert, who has taught social studies at Hill-Murray High School for the past 17 years, combined a slide show with a lecture interspersed with bits of history and stories as she led her audience through the history of Europe from the time of Napoleon through the morass of shifting alliances involving France, Russia, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Turkey, Italy and Great Britain, putting flesh on the bones of leaders like the Prussian Otto von Bismarck, English Prime Minister David Lloyd George and France’s Georges Clemenceau, especially the “real politik policies of Bismarck that isolated France and kept the peace for decades.
The presentation also detailed the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, by the secretive “Black Hand” organization that apparently still exists today in central Europe, and which led to sabre-rattling and an almost accidental start to what no one expected would blaze into a world-wide confrontation. To that time, Europe was used to “little wars”, Elert said, with just enough fighting to allow for honor to be satisfied and glory to be earned by soldiers before peace talks broke out and land could be exchanged.
She also detailed the horrific slaughter of trench warfare, in which tens of thousands perished in a single day, the first “mechanized” war where infantry men faced machine guns, modern artillery and poison gas, as well as the aerial bombardments from primitive bombers and German zeppelins that brought the war to civilian populations as never before.
The program included slides of famous air aces like Manfred von Richthofen, the dreaded “Red Baron” who had more than 80 confirmed victories in the air before being shot down, and other men who fought for the sky before the parachute was invented. She also touched on the sinking of the S.S. Lusitania, the foreshadowing of the German wolf packs that nearly knocked England out of WW II.
The German plan encouraging Mexico to start a war with the U.S.A. to recover Texas and keep the Doughboys out of Europe is little-known today, Elert said, but it was a very real attempt by the German intelligence services. Once the Yanks got “over there” in 1917, however, the endless supply of men and material turned the tide of the war.
Units like the U.S. Marine Corps. “Devil Dogs” made names for themselves, as what they lacked in experience they more than made up for in fighting spirit.
The war had a number of effects, including great advances in medicine and the treatment of wounds, social advances such as women’s suffrage and the right to vote, and great advances in technology that led to the development of commercial aviation and the development of the automobile as personal transportation.
The Spanish Flu (possibly HiNi) killed 20 million worldwide, Elert said, and more resources and less people led directly to the prosperity of the “Roaring Twenties”. The fierce penalties extracted by the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression also led to Hitler, and the world at war again only 20 years later.
The poetry written in the trenches is a source of “profound sadness” for Elert said, many verses touching on the beauty of the red poppies that grew in the shattered earth of the great battlefields in France, and still worn today in honor of “Armistice Day” in Europe and Veterans Day in the U.S.