Kate Abbott: News from the front - World War I began 100 years ago


On July 28, 1914, the world changed. But the world didn't know it then.

"The next day the air was thundery with rumors. Nobody believed them, everybody repeated them. War? Of course there couldn't be war! The Cabinets, like naughty children, were again dangling their feet over the edge; but the whole incalculable weight of things-as-they-were, of the daily necessary business of living, continued calmly and convincingly to assert itself against the bandying of diplomatic words. ..."

Edith Wharton, returning to Paris from a motoring trip and a picnic lunch in an apple orchard, walked through the dense shadows of Chartres Cathedral and watched the sun set over the Seine. As she wrote above, she heard the first tremors, and she put them aside.

Had she been in Lenox, she might have read the headlines in the Pittsfield Evening Eagle -- "Servia receives official notification of declaration of war by Autria-Hungary: Two Servian steamers seized by Austrians."

The paper did not say: World War I begins. But it had.

A hundred years ago, the Austro-Hungarian empire moved against a small, independent power -- and rewrote the world map. In the Great War, the Ottoman empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, German Empire and Russian empire would fall, and the British Empire would begin its collapse.

Twenty four million people died.

So I have been looking around for ways to remember it. When we hit the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's beginning, we had all manner of events. But World War I seems to have crept up on us. If you want to get close to life in the trenches, soldiers drowning in mud, women in their teens driving ambulances, Red Cross stations, shell shock, you have to look carefully.

The Mount follows Wharton's war correspondence from the front lines when the press would not let journalists through and her war relief efforts for veterans, widows and people fleeing shattered villages, in an ongoing exhibit. (They'll also host a talk about what she wore.)

While she was writing dispatches to Scribner's, Edward Hopper was illustrating war stories for the magazine. The Norman Rockwell Museum has some of his prints in their summer restrospective show of his career. (Hopper biographer Gail Levin will speak there at 6:30 tonight. Maybe she knows how the war touched him.)

In August, Ventfort Hall will host Robert Asplund, a Lenox summer resident, in a talk about Lenox before the war, when delegations from European embassies spent the summer here, and the Austro-Hungarian ambassador became involved in a scandal that "shook the neutral position of the country."

And if I want to know how it felt too, I might pick up Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory" at the Bookstore in Lenox or read Wharton's "Fighting France" over saag paneer and chai.

One thing I've learned so far: When they say World War I, they mean it. Japan and China both joined the Allies. Soldiers faught from Africa, Australia, New Zealand and India -- almost 1.5 million of the 2.5 million men who fought for the British Empire were Indian volunteers, according to the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

So I might pick up Kurban Said's "Ali and Nino" and think about what what this conflict meant for the people in the land that had been the Ottoman Empire -- the land or lands that after the war would become Syria and Lebanon, Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and the Persian Gulf.


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