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World War I Primary Sources Collection at the Library

By Marion Donovan, Assistant Librarian

World War I Primary Sources Collection at the Library

As a librarian at St. Mark’s this fall, I have begun to “weed” through our history collection and have taken a deep dive into time travel. In the past, I was a history teacher myself, so the primary sources that bring the past to life call out to me. A particular section in the library especially rich in those sources covers World War I. Both of my grandfathers fought in WWI on the Allied side, one as a doctor and the other as an engineer, so I grew up with stories and artifacts of “The Great War,” as it was first known. When I applied to graduate school for history at the University of Chicago, I discovered that La Verne Noyes, an American inventor and manufacturer of agricultural equipment, book holders, and windmills, had left the bulk of his fortune to scholarships for Allied veterans of WWI and their direct descendants. These scholarships have now expanded to include 48 colleges. April 6, 2017 will be the one-hundredth anniversary of the United States’ entry into WWI. The European side of the war began in 1914, so many newspaper and magazine articles have already examined new and old perspectives on those events. More will be coming with April 6 in view. We at St. Mark’s are lucky to have an extensive collection of first-hand material (diaries, letters, memoirs, news reports, propaganda, art, photographs) from marshals and generals to privates and civilians on wide-ranging aspects of this war.

Accounts of diplomacy and ethics trade blame for the start of the war and for failures of the “peace” at its end. Air, land and sea services were well-covered, as well as logistics, engineering, cryptography, espionage, ambulance, and medical teams. St. Mark’s (along with Andover and many colleges) has volumes devoted to their alumni and faculty participation in the war. Any one of these areas of study would be a fascinating way to immerse yourself in another culture—a different time and place, but also the most challenging of circumstances. Then, you may proceed to advance through the decades to discover how historians of each subsequent era have unearthed new information and used different lenses to look back at the war and make it speak with new relevance to the concerns of their own age.  

As a sampling, let me introduce you to just a dozen volumes to propel your interest. The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service by Erskine Childers (1903, ours was reprinted in 1929) spins a shadowy, sailing tale of the arms race in Europe well before the outbreak of the war in 1914. Over the Front in an Aeroplane by Ralph Pulitzer (1915) takes you to the trenches. A Journal from our Legation in Belgium by Hugh Gibson (Sept. 1917) shows the coming of the war through the eyes of an American diplomat. U.S. diplomat Charles Edward Russell’s Unchained Russia (1918) views the wartime transition from czarist to Bolshevik rule. The American Black Chamber (1931) by Herbert O. Yardley, a cryptographer, reveals the rise and fall of our code breakers from the war to 1929.

We do not lack rich sources from the other side.  Austrian reservist Fritz Kreisler wrote Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist in 1915 after being invalided out. His wife’s service as a nurse is part of this story. J’Accuse, published anonymously in 1915 in Switzerland, stands as a patriot’s plea to end a suicidal war. Ludendorff’s Own Story shows the view from a top German general. Lt. Col. Henry W. Miller published his memoirs in 1930 in The Paris Gun Bombardment of 1918 detailing enemy long-range ordinance. Cruise of the Raider ‘Wolf ‘ was written by Mr. Alexander, who had been taken prisoner by the German raider; he also discusses other raiders, including Count Luckner’s Seeadler, made famous by Lowell Thomas. A good pairing with U.S. consul Wesley Frost’s German Submarine Warfare: A Study of its Methods and Spirit (1918), is Capt. Paul Koenig’s Voyage of the Deutschland: The First Merchant Submarine (1916). From U-Boat to Pulpit (1937), a memoir by the Rev. Martin Niemoller, includes an appendix, “From Pulpit to Prison,” penned by an admirer while Niemoller faced a Nazi trial.

If WWI is not summoning you, we will have another momentous one-hundredth anniversary in the fall: Lenin’s October Russian Revolution.  

img_8253Marion Donovan has served as an Assistant Librarian at St. Mark’s for nearly 22 years. During that time she filled in on occasion teaching AP Euro, ESL, and Study Skills. She holds an AB from Smith College, a MA in East Asian Studies from Yale, and did doctoral work in Japanese history at the University of Chicago. In addition to a love of reading, Ms. Donovan lets fly her creative energies in the hobby of scale miniature vignettes.


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