The Disasters of War

World War I and American Art

an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, November 4, 2016–April 9, 2017; the New-York Historical Society, New York City, May 26–September 3, 2017; and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, October 6, 2017–January 21, 2018
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Robert Cozzolino, Anne Classen Knutson, and David M. Lubin
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts/Princeton University Press, 319 pp., $60.00

The Art of Devastation: Medals and Posters of the Great War

an exhibition at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, January 27–April 9, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Patricia Phagan and Peter van Alfen
American Numismatic Society/ Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, 354 pp., $100.00
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Claggett Wilson: Symphony of Terror, circa 1919

It comes as a surprise to a British reader to find World War I routinely referred to, by Americans, as America’s “forgotten war.” The British would never use such a term. It is true that certain significant aspects of the war have faded from the collective memory. Every one of us can remember why World War II was fought (“Hitler had to be stopped”), but few can do the same for World War I. Yes, the archduke had been shot in Sarajevo, but who the archduke was, and why his assassination led to general war, and why the war was or wasn’t worth fighting—that takes a rarer expertise to answer.

The war itself, though, is vividly, viscerally remembered through a series of images, stories, and rituals: bugle music—the Last Post and Reveille, framing the Two-Minutes’ Silence; the wearing of poppies on or around Armistice Day; the trenches; gas masks; the Christmas Truce (a famous moment of unauthorized fraternization on the western front in 1914); shell shock; the refusal to distinguish between the shell-shocked and the malingerer; the brutal idiocy of the generals; women handing out white feathers to noncombatant men; songs and parodies of songs; poets at the front line.

The list expands, contracts, expands again. It holds an abiding fascination for us. But that fascination changes with the decades. When I was a child the standard poppy had a black disk in the center, stamped with the name of the Haig Fund, named for Field Marshal Earl Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force. But over the years the reputation of Haig, the “Butcher of the Somme,” went into such a decline that his name was removed from the poppy. Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General,” written in a hospital in April 1917, gives us a generic World War I commander as he will inevitably be remembered—the affable fool with blood on his hands:

“Good morning; good morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, officers highly critical of the war and yet prepared to return from the hospital to the front (Owen to be killed a week before the Armistice), are the outstanding war poets. And war poets in this sense were something new: brave combatants in a campaign they detested, they speak to us with an unanswerable authority.

But it was an authority not to be replicated in other countries or other conflicts. Just as the…

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