One hundred years ago European nations engaged in what was to have been a “war to end all wars,” but ended up being the prelude to World War II and having repercussions to this day.
The Great War figures in many of the classes that James Zarzana, an English professor at Southwest Minnesota State University, teaches and he wondered if students or the community at large really knew about World War I, as it came to be known.
“I teach a lot of British literature classes – two or three classes have World War I as the central theme,” Zarzana said.
Zarzana is spearheading a community-wide series of programs called “Remembrance of The Great War: World War I Commemoration Series.”
“SMSU, the Marshall-Lyon County Library, the Lyon County Historical Society and other groups around town are organizing a lengthy commemoration of World War I starting this spring,” he said. “The Great War ran from 1914 until the final armistice in 1919, although the major fighting ended on Nov 11, 1918, a day now known to us as Veterans Day.”
The series will run from April until the spring of 2019.
“There are so many aspects,” Zarzana said. “I don’t think you capture it in one event.”
Zarzana said the war didn’t affect the United States as keenly as it did Europe.
“We were Johnny-Come-Latelys to the war,” he said. “There wasn’t a Pearl Harbor.”
America jumped into the war after the Germans tried to cut off Great Britain from the rest of the world, saying “‘we will sink any ship headed to Britain,'” Zarzana said. “Neutral or not, they didn’t care. The U.S. could not tolerate that.”
On May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, which primarily ferried people and goods across the Atlantic between the United States and Great Britain, was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 died, including 128 Americans.
World War I is known for its vast loss of life.
“During the 14 years of the Vietnam war, 55,000 lost their life,” Zarzana said. “At the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British lost 50,000 killed, missing and wounded in the first 24 hours. I think it is still considered the most costly day in the history of the British Army. The Battle of the Somme started on July 1, 1916, and raged with varying intensity until the fall of 1916. Hugely costly on both sides.”
In Europe there are many war memorials. Zarzana visited Ypres, Belgium, a couple years ago and the plaques there “look like the Marshall phonebook,” he said.
The kick-off presentation is at noon Tuesday at the Whipple Gallery, BA291, in the McFarland Library at SMSU and then repeated 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Marshall library community room.
History professor Tom Williford will present “The United States and the Imperial Game, 1898-1914.” Jeff Kolnick will talk about “World War I and the Great Migration.” The presentations are free and open to the public.
The Marshall-Lyon County Library is one of the partners in the endeavor.
“The Friends of the Library committed funds to help us pay for things connected with the programs,” said Holly Martin Huffman, Marshall-Lyon County Library director. “One item might be to purchase extra copies of books for a community read.”
The book, “Guns of August” will be the first book that community members can borrow.
The Lyon County Museum will be involved in the commemoration as well.
“We will have presentations in the summer and fall,” said Jennifer Andries, the Lyon County Historical Society director. “We will talk about what was happening here in Marshall 1914-1918.”
Andries would like more donations or loans of items from the World War I era.
Martin Huffman said the partnership has expanded to include the Southwest Minnesota Orchestra and the SMSU History Center.
“I’m so pleased it’s a community-wide endeavor,” Martin Huffman said. “It’s an opportunity to learn from each other, and ultimately to learn about our Minnesota heritage. Maybe children can talk to their grandparents who heard stories about this time from their own grandparents.”