Conference Program

85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History

 Landscapes of War and Peace

April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky

Title: British and American Experiences in World War I
Abstract: World War I was a transformative event for the British and American armies. One hundred years after the war, the two armies still feel its legacy. Military partnerships and administrative structures created during the war endure to the present day, and the lessons of World War I campaigns are still taught to officers. In addition, the war's toll on individual soldiers is evident in the sources they left behind. This panel asks what lasting effects the war had on individuals and military institutions. It addresses questions about the experiences of soldiers, their opinions toward their allies, and the postwar lessons they derived from the conflict.
Alexander Nordlund first examines the letters between a British soldier and his sweetheart to show how individuals coped with the hardships and separation of wartime. His paper, based on a rare collection of correspondence, uncovers the war's impact on relationships and sheds light on how individuals maintained a modicum of normalcy while serving. Tyler Bamford then expands this focus on individuals by revealing the opinions British and American soldiers adopted toward one another. Despite wartime disagreements, the overall favorable opinions they developed while training and fighting together carried over into the postwar era. Lastly, Mason Watson analyzes of the legacy of the British Army's Hundred Days campaign in World War I. In the final four months of World War I, the British Army achieved some of its greatest operational successes. After the war, however, the British Army's leaders selectively neglected the lessons of this campaign for the future. Their decision to overlook the implications of this advance had far reaching consequences for British Army doctrine in the interwar period. Together the papers will encourage discussion about the complex changes the war wrought on the Anglo-American armies and the individuals who comprised them.
Tyler Bamford, Temple University
Participant's Paper Title: Becoming Allies: British and American Military Relations in World War I
Participant's Paper Abstract: When the United States entered World War I, the officers charged with creating its expeditionary force in Europe readily turned to their British counterparts for information on raising and employing a large modern army. British Army officers, in turn, eagerly shared the lessons of three years of fighting on the Western Front with their new associates. For many officers on both sides, it was their first introduction to the other army. Yet by November 1918, hundreds of thousands of American officers and men had trained and fought with their British comrades. American and British soldiers' encounters with each other during the twenty months their countries were associate powers left enduring impressions that shaped their personal views, professional judgments, and set the tone for the two armies' interactions in the interwar period. In this way, these contacts became embedded in the armies' institutional memories. Soldiers' experiences and feelings in the Great War showed that fighting as allies did not automatically produce goodwill between the two armies. Disagreements over tactics, strategy, and the use of the American Army threatened to sour inter-army relations. While these arguments embittered some American soldiers who distrusted British motives, the majority of American and British officers developed a lasting affinity and mutual respect that carried over into the postwar era. Consequently the armies' cooperation during World War I laid the foundation for the unique Anglo-American military relationship in the 20th century.
John Morrow, University of Georgia
Brian Neumann, U.S. Army Center of Military History
Mason Watson, The Ohio State University
Participant's Paper Title: The Meaning of Victory: The Hundred Days Offensive in British Military Thought, 1918-1939
Participant's Paper Abstract: The British Army played a leading role in the great Allied advance during the last four months of the First World War on the Western Front. Between August and November 1918, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) captured more prisoners than the French and American armies combined and advanced over one hundred miles. In strictly numerical terms, the Hundred Days should rank among the greatest victories in British military history. Yet this campaign has never received the attention lavished on the comparatively miniscule battle of Mons, or on the disastrous first day of the Somme offensive. Even the British Army's leadership took little notice of the campaign that won the war on the Western Front, preferring to focus on the war's eastern "side-shows," and on the opening battles in France and Belgium.
As this paper argues, the British Army's failure to recognize the significance of the Hundred Days had far-reaching effects. By looking almost exclusively to 1914-15 for "lessons" applicable to future conflicts, the British Army's leaders ignored battles that would have much greater relevance for operations in WWII. An overwhelming focus on the early part of the war furthermore lent credibility to those who believed that Britain's decision to deploy a mass army to France in WWI had been a costly mistake. The generals who led the BEF to victory in 1918 ultimately failed to make a persuasive case for the relevance of the Hundred Days. Instead, more critical voices, including the British Army's radical theorists of armored warfare, successfully argued that the Allied victory in WWI owed much more to developments beyond the Western Front. This paper, through an analysis of competing interwar assessments of the Hundred Days, seeks to explain the process by which the British Army came to embrace a distorted vision of its greatest battlefield victory.
Alexander Nordlund, University of Georgia
Participant's Paper Title: "I have something which is eternal": A British Courtship, Letter-Writing, and the Experience of the First World War
Participant's Paper Abstract: Letters offer an important glimpse into how British soldiers experienced the First World War without the distortion of memory found within memoirs and other postwar testimonies. What is often lost, however, is the dialogic nature of these letters, which delve into topics beyond the war and contain the voices of the civilians to whom they wrote back home. From this perspective, historians can discover the extent to which soldiers and civilians alike allowed war to become a part of the lives they had built beyond the war and how their plans for the postwar world evolved during the conflict. While British soldiers predominantly wrote letters to their families during the First World War, a sizable minority also wrote extensively to women they had begun courting before and during the conflict. In the case of Fred Sellers and Grace Malin, letters provided a means through which they could continue their relationship when Fred joined the British Army after war broke out. Fred and Grace wrote to one another not with the intention of sharing the 'truth' about the war or Fred's experiences in the trenches. Rather, they wrote so they could both endure the war, whether it was on the home front or the Western Front, and strengthen the ties between them for a possible future together beyond the conflict. It is from this human perspective that despite all the sociocultural and political upheaval caused by the First World War, individuals nonetheless found ways amidst such chaos to find continuity in their immediate lives or, in the case of Fred and Grace, something 'eternal' outside the conflict to provide meaning to their wartime hardships and allow them to return to the postwar world with some semblance of normalcy. It was people like Fred and Grace, not war, that wrote these letters.

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