Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

First World War, a website

WW1 poster-eagles
We are so used to thinking of WW1 as a precursor for the Second, that it’s a bit startling to find something devoted only to that “war to end all wars”. The website First World War is probably the most complete reference source that can be found on the subject. I can’t believe it’s been around for 10 years without my having found it before!
No aspect of the war seems to have been missed, yet all are arranged into categories and easily navigated. Containing not only the personalities and battles, but unexpected sections, such as animals used in the war and battlefields and memorials in the present day. There are silent videos of events and personalities, audios of speeches, news reports and songs of the era(including “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” featured on Downton Abbey ) and multiple maps of battles over weeks and months.There’s a section of poems and prose inspired by the conflict, with not only the expected literary names, but also letters and diaries of soldiers, medical staff and chaplains. These give a vivid portrait of the everyday challenges the personnel faced, as does the artwork of the time, another segement of the site, filled with many on-the-spot sketches, as well as official illustrations for news reports.
The website is truly global, with contributors from across the globe and both sides of the conflict. And the site allows the reader to do a serious study of a topic or have a more casual overview. Take for example, weapons; some sources might lump them all together, but this site divides them into types: guns, planes, tanks, grenades, even unsual kinds such as flamethrowers. Each one has a detailed essay about it, accompanied by a number of black and white photos. In fact, the archival photos is one of the best things about the website, they are in categories and can be viewed as a slide show or individually.
One area that I was intrigued by was the Propaganda Posters. Originally for recruitment, morale or behavior modification, I spent a long time comparing them from nearly every country involved in the conflict. Not only was I interested in the artwork, but also the messages and how they were commnicated, which varied greatly between nations. Germany was often portrayed as a dark eagle, even in their own posters and they liked to show their soldiers as knights in armor. France’s was the most arty, using styles of recent artists, such as Toulouse-Latrec in striking designs. The UK had the most familiar ones, but I was still surprised by their stressing “the cruelty of the Huns”. They also tried a lighter angle by pointing out “The Army Isn’t All Work” with a rugby player and cricketeer flanking a soldier. The contrasting attitudes towards immigrants between the U.S. and Canada was striking. Canada encouraged the nationalities to join specialized regiments of Scots or Irish, etc. playing on the strength of ancestral feeling. While the U.S. tried to manipulate immigrants with a guilt trip along the lines of “you owe us for giving you refuge, so join up or buy bonds”, which felt slimy.
There was a couple unusual posters, one weird one was of a wild-eyed man in a fedora, pointing his finger at the reader, claiming “I Need Smokes more than anything”. Really, soldiers needed cigarettes more than sleep or dry socks? A better one was of a soldier climbing up a hill partly made of books, declaiming “Knowledge Wins”, promoting the use of libraries. As a Book Fox, of course I am in favor of boosting libraries, but what does that have to do with the war? All of the posters were easily browsed using a nifty feature where one clicks on the top one and it slides underneath, like a virtual stack of cards.
There are more areas I plan on exploring and I wish I had discovered this website sooner, because it’s fascinating and puts the First World War in context on it’s own merits. I highly recommend it for anyone who has an interest in that era, but be sure to allow plenty of time when you visit the site, as it’s immensely absorbing.

5 comments on “First World War, a website

  1. Matthew Wright
    November 12, 2013

    I have written a couple of books on the New Zealand experience in this war. With hindsight it was certainly merely the first act in a thirty year conflict, not finally resolved until 1945. But nobody knew that at the time. And it was the first time industry had been applied to warfare. Hence the appalling casualty lists and the ability to sustain them. Unthinkably awful.

  2. cleopatralovesbooks
    November 12, 2013

    I’m off to have a look at this site – thank you for sharing. I love propaganda posters so I will be having a good look at them.

  3. Kate
    November 12, 2013

    Great comparison of art and propaganda! The awful anti-Germanism of the British efforts was more often than not simply based on lies in the newspapers, dependent on the willingness of an anxious and under-informed readership to believe anything it was told.

  4. Sue Williams
    November 12, 2013

    My grandfather, or Pappy as I called him, fought in WWI. Not sure if my other grandfather, mom’s father did because I think he just got here around 1917. I have marked this to look at later on in the day today. Thank you again Jackie for a wonderful review that makes me want to go right there now and do some digging.

  5. fauquetmichel
    November 13, 2013

    The butchery of the War I has been the beginning of the decline of Europe and France especially .
    I is interesting that a website so well summarised here recalls the unimaginable horror of that war and the previous and the following ones never ended .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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