This week marks the centenary of America’s entry into World War I, also known as The Great War. (Whether this week marks our entry into a new war is another matter.) Above is an image of what Brooks Brothers did that fateful year of 1917. Its Christmas advertisement took special note of soldiers, and seems to suggest that the gifts could be sent overseas for practical use by soldiers in the field, who could certainly enjoy a pipe to calm their nerves.
In college I developed a fascination with the 19th century — particularly the end of it — that remains to this day. But it was during a course called The Novel In France And Germany that a professor shared her own fascination with World War I, and passed it on to me. It’s known as “the last gentleman’s war,” and to illustrate the point my professor showed us one of the great World War I films, “La Grande Illusion,” made by Jean Renoir in 1937. I’ve watched it several times since, and there’s a pivotal scene when two officers — one French, one German — discuss that although they are enemies, they share the class bond of being European aristocrats. And as such, their days of power and influence are coming to an end. It is the kind of bittersweet twilight of the gods that always makes my spine tingle.
There are many fantastic Great War films, and I’m sure we can collectively list them in the comments section. Another I’d like to offer, that may have flown under your radar, is the fantastic “Joyeux Noel” from 2005, about a temporary cease-fire for Christmas Day. Oh, and speaking of “Noel,” there’s also Noel Coward’s play and film “Cavalcade.”
And being a huge fan of American popular music starting with Scott Joplin, I also enjoy the songs associated with World War I. “There’s A Long, Long Trail A-Winding” was written by two Yale students a few years earlier, and became associated with the war. It’s hard to imagine young men called upon to summon the courage to face death would sing these beautiful songs together, but the past is another world, as they say.
And now one final personal anecdote. My first writing job was as a reporter for a regional business magazine in my home town north of San Francisco. Sometime around ’97 or so I pitched my editor a story about people who never retire. I rounded up a group of men at least into their seventies from a range of professions. One was an upholsterer, bright and alert as can be, in his early nineties, which means he was born in the first decade of the 20th century. He was raised in a small town in the Midwest, and could remember the time when he was a child and an airplane flew overhead and the whole town ran outside in awe to watch it, because of course no one had seen an airplane fly before. To hear someone tell you that kind of story, and to imagine yourself in his place, is just amazing. He then told me an even better story so unbelievably of another era. When he was 16 he ran off to join the Army; this was around 1922. When he arrived he was devastated to learn that they had just cut the cavalry — he’d joined so he could be a soldier on horseback! But World War I was the last war to use horses. Future wars would involve machines of death, and eventually, pushing buttons.
Oh, and when I asked the old man the secret to his longevity, he said it was being made of good old-fashioned peasant stock. His wife had died many years ago. “She was delicate and aristocratic,” he said in fond remembrance. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD