Why World War I?

I’ve always been very interested in early twentieth century society, with the old ways rapidly giving way to the new.  Somewhere along the line I became particularly interested in World War I.  Like most teenagers, I read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school (well, I don’t know if most teenagers actually read the book, but I was one of those students who actually did her homework).  Maybe it started there.  The book  follows Paul Baumer as he experiences the horrors of the western front in France.  Page after page we read about the deplorable conditions of the trenches, the constant presence of lice and rats and the threat of death by a sniper or an errant artillery shell.  Yet there’s one particular image from the book that stands out in my mind all these years later: butterflies.

So why butterflies?  Because that is what Paul sees when he returns home on leave: a glass case of butterflies he had collected when he was a boy, a symbol of his childhood.  The chapter in which Paul is away from the front stands in stark contrast to the rest of the book.  It is a reminder of life before the war, a life which Paul, and all the others who fought, could never return to, at least not easily.  Paul feels this keenly:

I imagined leave would be different from this.  Indeed, it was different a year ago.  It is I of course that have changed in the interval.  There lies a gulf between that time and today.  At that time I still knew nothing about the war, we had only been in quiet sectors.  But now I see that I have been crushed without knowing it.  I find I do not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world…I prefer to be alone, so that no one troubles me.  For they all come back to the same thing, how badly it goes and how well it goes; one thinks it is this way, another that; and yet they are always absorbed in the things that go to make up their existence.  Formerly I lived in just the same way myself, but now I feel no contact here. ~All Quiet on the Western Front, chapter 7

Many middle and upper-class women volunteered to assist trained nurses during the war.

Four years of war wrought extreme changes on society.  It not only left an indelible mark on the men who fought, but had a huge impact on the home front.  It ushered in the roaring ’20s, a time of excess as young men and women tried their best to forget the war.

Granted, changes were already occurring as new technologies developed, but the first world war worked as a catalyst, propelling society into the modern age.  I find the period fascinating, and that is why I chose it as the backdrop for my first novel.

So here’s my question for you history lovers out there–why is it that you love the time period that interests you?  What is it about the period that captivates you in a way that other periods don’t?

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8 Comments

Filed under World War I

8 responses to “Why World War I?

  1. What era do I adore? I am partial to the heyday of Hollywood, the fabulous forties and fifties, when movie musicals ruled the silver screen.

    This nostalgia, fueled by stories from my grandmother and mother (you have to know my background and yes, Elvis ate dinner at my grandparent’s house), lure me to a more glamorous age. Back then, we didn’t have celebrities running around everywhere without proper undergarments, you could understand the lyrics to songs, and when stars walked the red carpet, they did so in elegance and glamour.

    The world was a simpler place then, and kids didn’t have to be glued to a smartphone by age 10. Toys were created to spur the imagination. Kids played outside.

  2. Those two decades will play a role in my new manuscript I just began, “Stagedoor Johnny”, which is an homage to my late grandmother.

  3. There are so many eras that fascinate me. Ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Europe 900 AD-1700, 1920’s, 40’s, and 50’s in the US. It’s so fascinating to think that no matter what the fashion, the environment, that people throughout history have had the same basic wants and drives that we have now. Well, they might not want a new iPhone as badly as I do…

    • Haha! Well, they wouldn’t know what one was, would they? That is one of the most compelling things to me about history, that the environments might change, but people are still driven by the same emotions. Which makes them relatable, no matter what period you study.

  4. I’m going to have to forward your website/blog on to my daughter (a History major/history nerd). She’ll be happy to find a kindred spirit. How many 20 year old girls say “World War I is may favorite war”? I’ll be keeping an eye out for you books they sound terrific. (hurray Downton Abbey this weekend)
    Thanks for stopping by my blog.

  5. Pingback: Why does World War I still resonate? | Diana Overbey

  6. Jenny

    Really enjoyed your post Diana! It’s so important to keep these significant historical dates alive. Like you, I was a good kid and actually did my homework and read “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I admit that it was not something I would have picked up on my own to read, especially at that age, but I’m so glad I read it (or “had” to read it!). It’s one of those stories that really sticks with you. But I think that I’ve always enjoyed learning and reading about WW II. Probably because even though I don’t remember my Grandfather, knowing that he fought during that time and was so proud of his service makes me all the more interested in learning what that period was like.

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