Seventy years ago this past June, the armies of the Allies — young men who had grown up in the shadow of the previous war — landed on the beaches of Normandy to put an end to what had begun, in a sense, 30 Junes earlier on the streets of Sarajevo when Franz Ferdinand lost his life to an assassin’s bullet.
The connections between the two world wars are myriad but one that most Americans never consider is this: both conflicts were fought with courage if not heroism. Americans make an immediate association between the concept of hero and the Second World War thanks, in part, to a continuous stream of related television and film productions featuring our Greatest Generation. But the First World War? Most of us know too little about it to make that connection.
And heroism requires a cause. World War II clearly had it. World War I did not, at least initially. The nationalism and related territorial claims that stirred Europe to war in 1914 hardly constituted a good vs. evil situation.
Brave Little Belgium
However, something occurred early on to give the war something of that sense. On August 3, 1914, the German government requested a peaceful passage through Belgium into France. Germany’s army was large and battle-ready. Belgium’s was neither. Yet the Belgians refused and defended their border. The surprised Germans reacted, in some instances, with savagery. Belgium, eventually beaten and occupied became internationally known as “Brave Little Belgium.” The Germans were called “The Huns.” As in Attila the.
Clearly, not all German fighting men were barbarians. And the armies of the Central Powers certainly showed courage in battle; one only has to consider their enormous casualty numbers to appreciate this. Yet their cause, associated as it was with Germany’s, would never seem to be as fully right to Americans as that of the Allies, who the United States finally joined in 1917.
Safe for Democracy
Hoping to make a clear distinction between American and European military motivations, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (pictured) stated the United States would join the war to “make the world safe for democracy.” And if the United States had an all-American reason for going to war, their involvement in the European conflict produced an exceptional all-American hero.
Alvin York, born and raised in Tennessee, was an expert marksman who gained fame — and a significant number of medals — during one stunning incident on the Western Front: while a group of machine-gunning Germans was decimating his battalion, York single-handedly sniped off more than 20 before the rest surrendered. He then escorted 132 German prisoners to Allied headquarters.
An entire generation of American boys, inspired by York’s heroics, took up his mantle when they came of age and fought Fascism from Normandy to Iwo Jima.
But there were other World War I mantles, European ones, that affected World War II Americans. During the Second World War young Belgian Andrée de Jongh created and operated an escape route that rescued hundreds of downed American (and British) airmen from occupied Europe. Her inspiration to fight Nazi Germany? Edith Cavell (pictured) and Gabrielle Petit, two World War I heroines executed by the Germans in Brussels, de Jongh’s hometown.
British agent Pearl Witherington saved countless American lives after D-Day when her resistance network in Central France disrupted German communication and transportation, significantly slowing sections of the German rush to the Normandy coast. Witherington had been inspired by World War I heroine, Louise de Bettignies, who had run a brilliantly successful espionage network for British Intelligence in German-occupied France.
World War I might seem morally ambiguous from a distance but this does not mean that we should underappreciate the dedication and courage of its participants. If the war wasn’t overflowing with heroic principles, it did create exceptional heroes, some of whom would directly impact the next generation, men and women whose war would be painted in much clearer moral shades.
See HIAH’s reviews of Kathryn’s books, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics and Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue, both published by Chicago Review Press