Studying WW1 versus WW2

Discussion in 'Historiography' started by Gerard, Jan 26, 2010.

  1. Gerard

    Gerard Seelow/Prora

    In the "Great Donkeys" thread Adam has alluded to the fact that WW1 history is somewhat skewed by people such as the war poets who compare the war to a slaughter and yet WW2 is not seen in the same light even though there was as many casualties and on a much bigger scale, both geographically and statistically. so what do you think? Is the study of the great war clouded by perceptions and myth? Did the Anti-war lobby gain the upper hand in terms of its legacy? And how do you think that time has judged it against WW2?
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  2. Auditman

    Auditman Senior Member

    I think the biggest issue was the relatively static nature of WW1. In Normandy in WW2 the casualty rate at the set piece battles was, I read somewhere, as high as that in Flanders WW1 but by Early September the front had moved on into Belgium etc. Compare that to the Ypres salient where fighting was over the same few square miles for virtually 4 years, with most Regiments in the Army being rotated through there at some time.
  3. Alan Allport

    Alan Allport Senior Member

    Is the study of the great war clouded by perceptions and myth?

    Absolutely! But then, the study of the Second World War is clouded by perceptions and myth also.

    I think it's important to note that memories of both world wars tend to be specifically national memories. The British perception of WWI as the 'futile' war and WWII as the 'good war' is not shared everywhere; indeed, in Eastern Europe, for instance, the opposite tends to be the case.

    There are particular reasons why, from the British perspective, WWII is remembered as a 'better' war than WWI. Here are a few that come to mind (remember that I am talking here about popular perceptions, not necessarily reality...)

    WWII was a righteous war. Its good-versus-evil narrative is simple and compelling. In contrast, WWI had obscure, muddled origins, and its outcome was far more ambivalent.

    The British had a uniquely heroic role. The myth of 1940, the Battle of Britain and Our Finest Hour gives the war a particularly glamourous, romantic tone. In contrast, WWI is the war of tragedy and pathos; the sacrifices of the Somme and Ypres are remembered as courage sacrificed in vain.

    The war was well-managed. Churchill's armed forces seemed to get things 'right,' as indicated by the relatively low casualty figures (c. 250,000 KIA compared to c. 750,000). The most famous general of the war is Monty - down-to-earth and competent. In contrast, WWI is the war of antiquated chateaux commanders ignorant of the slaughter in the trenches. The most famous general of the war is Haig - callous and incompetent.

    WWII was a war of heroic individuals. The war provided opportunities for heroes: Bader, Gibson, the cockleshell heroes, the gallant little ships of Dunkirk. In contrast, WWI is a war of anonymous mass sacrifice, its only well-known individuals the disenchanted canonical poets.

    WWII was a war of brains, not brawn. The boffins of WWII prevented another useless slaughter by the use of brilliant Brish technology. Hence radar, the Spitfire, the bouncing bomb, (eventually ULTRA.) In contrast, WWI is the war of the rifle and bayonet, of "fighting machine guns with the breasts of gallant men" (Churchill).

    Can anyone think of any other key contrasts in popular memory?

    Best, Alan
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  4. Oggie2620

    Oggie2620 Senior Member

    I think WW2 was seen as a less personal war but I also think they should have equal status. Now we have lost the last of WW1 vets I hope that the focus does not completely come off them as the bravery of the guys and gals in both wars is no different.
  5. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron

    Interesting thread title.

    I remember posting this once:

    Two of my wife’s uncles, sadly departed many years ago, were of the generation that fought in the First World War, then known as the Great War and I was bemused by the fact that whenever these two met up they would be forever comparing wartime experiences.

    I have to remind myself now, in the year 2007, that these two old codgers were reminiscing in 1949 about events that had taken place only 30 odd years before yet here am I, on this site, discussing and yes, remembering, things that took place 65 years ago.

    I have never been able to get interested in the Great War other than a little research I conducted on behalf of my wife regarding her own fathers role as a soldier in that war.
  6. handtohand22

    handtohand22 Senior Member

    From the sources available to myself, the following statistics appear to be correct, but they are worth double checking. Different sources seem to provide different figures.

    PoW Numbers

    As technology, strategy and tactics on the battlefield advanced so did the number of prisoners taken in battle. Data referred to by Davis (1977) shows that during The Great War there was a total of 8,500,000 prisoners of war. During the the Second World War this rose to a total of 35,000,000.

    Civilian Casualties

    In the Great War 17 million in total were killed. 7 million of the civilian population (42%), compared to 10 million Service personnel (58%).
    The majority of the casualty lists at the close of World War Two show that approximately 55,000,000 people in total were killed. That was 31 million Civilians (57%) and 23 million Service personnel (42%).

    World War 2 Statistics

    Compared to The Great War, the killing of civilians during the Second World War appears to have been more indiscriminate.

    Life Expectancy

    At the start of the Second World War the volunteers from Coleraine town expected to be killed in the first week as their forefathers had been during The Great War. As a result they married their sweethearts so that they could have a widows pension. They were all too pessimistic. The Second World War serviceperson had a longer life expectancy. Despite that statistic, two and a half times more Service Personnel from different countries were killed than in The Great War.
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  7. Genie Powell

    Genie Powell Junior Member

    Both the World Wars of the last century had long-lasting global effects. World War I was ironically called the 'War to End All Wars'. However, it let directly to the Second World War and set ground for the international order we have today. Following the end of the War, the world map now had Palestine and Iraq. Interestingly, many of the historical causes of the war in the Middle East can be traced back to the aftermath of World War I. Textbooks have always taught us that World War II brought in a new world order and America rose as the new power nation. This War is often referred to as the 'Good War' as forces of good triumphed over those of evil. But it's never so simple, is it? No war is 'good war.' Every war results into irreparable loss of lives and property. To get more insights into this topic, try Awesome site!
  8. blacksnake

    blacksnake As old as I feel.

    Interesting question ... Now that you've 'forced' me to consider it. :D

    Not having really studied WWI with any great depth, I'd struggle to strike a detailed comparison between the two. The clouded perceptions and myth you speak of are a result of the passage of time and also the luxury of 'hind site'.

    You would expect that two (world) wars happening within 30 years of each other would generate an equal interest in today's society, if you study one, then you automatically study both. I'm sure that's true for some, but that doesn't seem to be the case for all. Is that because WWII is the most recent, having still memorable connections and affects in modern society? Or because they where completely different wars in every way? Especially in the attitudes of the people of the time.

    Until the outbreak and eventual outcome of WWII there was nothing to compare the 'Great War' to. It would seem that the original intentions of the First World War were only achieved in the Second World War. Making WWI seem more futile. As well as attitudes changing, so did the name change to WWI. As Blackadder so rightly said "The War to end all Wars, until the next War."

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