World War I and the Relation of Myth to History

By David M. Kennedy

My favorite uncle, Eugene Kennedy, age 31, was inducted into the U.S. Army in Albany, N.Y., on April 27, 1918. Three days later he was in Camp Dix, N.J., where, as he noted in his diary, “men fainted at reveille due to vaccination and shot of needle.” Less than a month later, after more injections, close-order drilling, “practice jumping trenches and entanglements,” lectures on the menace of venereal disease, and exactly two sessions on the rifle range, Pvt. Kennedy and his comrades in Company E of the 303rd Engineers, 78th Division — most of whom had never before ventured beyond their towns in New Jersey and upstate New York — marched to Jersey City and boarded the British ship Kashmir, “the blackest, foulest, most congested hole that I ever set foot into,” bound for France.

Historical map American Expeditionary Force

Drooping from sea-sickness and poor rations, they arrived at last in Calais, part of the two-million-man American Expeditionary Force that the U.S. fielded in 1917–18. Like most of those troops, they spent the next three months drilling, marching, gas-mask training, more marching, bivouacking, still more marching, and desperate foraging for grub. Like most of their comrades-in-arms, they finally tasted combat in the two great American offensives of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne in the last weeks of the war. Some 53,000 Americans gave their lives in battle; an additional 63,000 perished from accident or disease.

Like my uncle, those hapless, unworldly, lice-pestered, ill-trained, poorly equipped soldiers were hardly the singing, loose-limbed, dauntless Doughboys of lore. Few endured the numbing terror of protracted trench warfare that so cruelly winnowed the British, French, German, Italian, Austrian and Russian ranks. Thanks to shipping shortages and epic administrative confusion, most spent more time as tourists in post-Armistice Europe than they did as front-line combatants. (Uncle Gene spent his seven post-war months savoring the delights of the Folies Bergère and shooting clay pigeons from the balconies of Monaco casinos.)

And yet — for many of those short-term warriors, memory enshrined their moment in arms as the summit of their lives, an extraordinary season out of time when experience surpassed the far horizons of imagination. And they forged bonds of comradeship that sacralized and often richly embroidered the martial tales they told friends, families, and one another ever after. Uncle Gene’s detailed diary, meticulously inked in block-capital letters on the pages of his graph-paper log-book, looks down from my bookshelf to this day as testament to the depth and durability of those sentiments.

Nearly half a century after the war, I had dinner with Uncle Gene and several of his fellow veterans in their home-town of Watervliet, N.Y. They told their favorite war stories, of course, but they also talked about their contributions over many decades to the civic life of Watervliet. They had served as councilmen, mayors, school board members, scout leaders and church elders. Driving home, I remarked to Uncle Gene how impressive it was to spend an evening with so many pillars of the community. “Yes,” he said, “but I was in France in 1918 with all those men, and I saw them do things that you would not believe.” “What do you mean?” I innocently asked. “You know what I mean,” he said.

And there began my interest in World War I as a case study in the relation of myth to history, and of remembrance to reality — a study made possible by the incomparably rich resources of the Library of Congress.

David M. Kennedy is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus at 
Stanford University. His prize-winning books include “Over Here: The First World War and American Society” and “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945.” Kennedy wrote the introduction to the Library’s WWI history, “America and the Great War,” and is an adviser on the
Library’s World War I exhibition. This piece was originally published in the March-April 2017 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.