Viewing WWI through the eyes of those who were there

“World War I and America — Told By the Americans Who Lived It” edited by A. Scott Berg (The Library of America, 987 pages, $40).

On April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson gave the most important speech of his presidency. Wilson was addressing a joint session of Congress. During that speech, this president who had spent the last three years keeping the United States out of the First World War changed course and decided that it was time for us to finally declare war on Germany.

In a tiny town in western Iowa, a pair of identical twins graduated from high school in June 1917. They immediately enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. One of those twins was my grandfather. My grandpa Amos and his brother Orrin shipped off to France.

Those WWI veterans are long gone. Amos lived to be 96. I never asked him about his experiences in the war — I really regret that. As we observe the 100th anniversary of our entry into WWI, some books are being published to mark the event. One of the best so far is a collection of observations written by Americans as the war was actually taking place.

“World War I and America — Told By the Americans Who Lived It” tracks the timeline of the war. Readers are able to see through the eyes of various observers as the war begins. We are able to experience the viewpoints of a whole range of participants, from President Wilson, to former President Teddy Roosevelt, to newspaper reporters, nurses and soldiers upon the fields of battle.

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This dazzling range of voices was compiled by A. Scott Berg. He knows the era well. He’s the author of a highly acclaimed biography of Wilson. Wilson had taken pride in the fact that he had kept America out of the war during his first term. Roosevelt was disgusted by Wilson’s isolationist stance. When Wilson was running for reelection in 1916, Teddy gave a speech in which he stated that if Wilson wins again, “we have deliberately elected to show ourselves for the time being a sordid, soft, and spineless nation.”

This reviewer’s favorites in this collection are the ones that describe what was happening on the battlefields and in the air overhead, where daring pilots were dueling for supremacy of the skies. Floyd Gibbons, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was in the thick of the action at the Battle of Belleau Wood in France in June 1918. His dispatch, “Wounded — How It Feels to Be Shot,” is utterly compelling.

Shirley Millard was a nurse on the front lines. An excerpt from her book “I Saw Them Die” takes us into a field hospital to view the horrors within. The longest piece in the collection is also the best. Hervey Allen’s descriptions of the fighting from his book “Toward the Flame” detail events which took place at the Battle of Filmette, France, in August 1918.

This collection helped me gain a better understanding of what my grandfather endured. If you want to witness vibrant literary images of what World War I was about and events that took place during those terrible times, I highly recommend this splendid commemorative edition.

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