With the centennial anniversary of the commencement of the Great War, World War I, occurring yesterday perhaps Americans will become more conscious of the commemoration that has been underway in Europe for some time. Or perhaps not–we might wait until 1917. This was a war that was so momentous, so global, so total, that there are many ways to recall and remember it–literary, visual, material: the detritus of the Great War will be with us forever. I’ve read many World War I poems, by soldiers who died and survived, seen many World War I films, made close to its time and farther away, seen many examples of “trench art”, and touched medals, bullets and helmets. Whenever I have to teach this War (which for me happens only in broad world and western civilization surveys, so I don’t have much time), I rely on examples of the stunning (in a horrifying way) photographs of life on the front (my key source for these is the Imperial War Museum in London) and recruiting posters, which can represent themes and issues relevant to both fronts: “over there” and home. As it happens, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City is auctioning off a large collection of vintage 20th century posters next week, including some amazing (in terms of both art and message) World War I recruiting posters, and the online catalog is comprehensive, annotated, and extremely educational. Here’s a small sample–in chronological order:
1. SAVILE LUMLEY (1876-1960) DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR? 1915. The classic “shame” poster–pretty powerful! 2. A.G.R. (DATES UNKNOWN) CANADIENS FRANCAIS / VENEZ AVEC NOUS DANS LE 150IÈME BATAILLON C.M.R. 1915. A bird fight! 3.A.O. MAKSIMOV (DATES UNKNOWN). [WAR LOAN / FORWARD FOR THE MOTHERLAND!] 1916. One of the last Tsarist appeals before the Russian Revolution. 4. JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG (1870-1960) WAKE UP, AMERICA! 1917. 5. DAVID HENRY SOUTER (1862-1935) IT’S NICE IN THE SURF BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MEN IN THE TRENCHES / GO AND HELP. 1917. An Australian version of the shame poster. 5. RICHARD FAYERWEATHER BABCOCK (1887-1954) JOIN THE NAVY. 1917. This might have been the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove! 7. EDWARD PENFIELD (1866-1925) YES SIR – I AM HERE! / MOTOR CORPS OF AMERICA. 1918. So many World War I posters reflect women’s service during the war; this is a rare Edward Penfield image.
One young American man who could not wait until 1917 was Allan Seeger (uncle of Pete), who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion almost immediately after the hostilities began in Europe and died at the Battle of Somme (July-November, 1916) alongside a million other men. He left behind this prescient, poignant poem, which was first published in 1917, just as his fellow Americans were heading “over there”:
I Have a Rendezvous with Death, Alan Seeger:
I have a rendezvous with death/At some disputed barricade,/When Spring comes back with rustling shade/And apple-blossoms fill the air–/I have a rendezvous with Death/ When Spring brings back blue days and fair/ It may be he shall take my hand/And lead me into his dark land/And close my eyes and quench my breath–/It may be I shall pass him still/I have a rendezvous with Death/On some scarred slope of battered hill,/When Spring comes round again this year/And the first meadow-flowers appear./God knows ’twere better to be deep/Pillowed in silk and scented down./Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep/Pulse nigh to pulse and breath to breath/When hushed awakenings are dear…../But I’ve a rendezvous with Death/at midnight in some flaming town./When Spring trips north, again this year,/And I to my pledged word am true,/I shall not fail that rendezvous.