Prof: WW I anniversary may not yet be on radar for Americans

July 22, 2014  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Many countries will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I this summer, and even though America's military role in the conflict came later, now is a chance to learn about a war that is often overlooked, says a Purdue University historian.

"Images of World War I often focus on the horror and futility of trench warfare, or the novelty of aerial dogfights, mass artillery bombardments, and the first use of rudimentary tanks," says David Atkinson, an assistant professor of history who specializes in American foreign relations and international relations history. "But it is important to remember that this war entailed much more than that. It necessitated the transformation of entire populations, industries and economies into war-making machines, changes that would resonate throughout the 20th century."

World War I, also known as the Great War, began on July 28 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1, 1914, and then on France and Belgium in the following days. The United States did not enter the war until the spring of 1917.

"In America, the Vietnam War and World War II capture people's imagination in ways World War I does not. In popular history, it is simply a precursor to World War II," Atkinson says. "It’s important on its own terms with more than 15 million casualties and the development of the world’s first industrialized military forces.

"There is tremendous geopolitical significance to this war. It resulted in the creation of new countries and the dismantling of empires that had been in place for centuries. We are still dealing with the war's implications today from Bosnia and Serbia to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East."

Staying out of the war was a primary political issue in the 1916 elections.

"To begin with a lot of Americans were not following the events and causes as they seemed very distant, such as the assassination of the archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bosnian and Serbia relations and conflicts over territory on the Adriatic Sea. It seemed distant, and it was in many respects," Atkinson says.

That changed as Americans began to feel the economic effects from the war at home, and there were increasing travel concerns for Americans and the threat of other countries attacking the United States at sea. The United States declared war and began training troops in spring 1917. Fighting ended Nov. 11, 1918. 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source: David Atkinson, 

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