In 2014 the George L. Mosse Program in History and UW-Madison’s Special Collections created an exhibition—1914: Then Came Armageddon—to commemorate the hundred year anniversary since the outbreak of World War I. Guest exhibit co-curators Skye Doney and Eric O’Connor drew upon strong holdings of books, printed ephemera, letters, postcards, maps, and other unpublished materials to illustrate the months leading up to the beginning of the war in Europe in 1914, the duration of the war itself, life on the home front, creative works inspired by the war, and the eventual entry of the United States into the “war to end all wars.”
With the upcoming launch of this digital exhibit, the documents from the 2014 exhibit—with the addition of new, unpublished material—will be fully accessible online to the public. The ongoing move to online learning is a testament to the importance of historical digitization as a means to support and share documents otherwise inaccessible to the larger public.
The exhibit is not meant to be exhaustive but rather an attempt to shed light on one of the world’s most consequential conflicts that left millions dead or displaced. 1914: Then Came Armageddon is a small contribution to the invaluable resources already available to the public and an opportunity to share the material hosted by the University of Wisconsin Libraries System with anyone interested in discovering the breadth of the material held by this University. The project could not have been possible without the direction of the George L. Mosse Program in History, the documents housed by the Special Collections’ archives, and the digitization efforts of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections (UWDC).
Although it is the Mosse Program’s wish to someday feature all the cases originally included in the physical exhibit online, we ultimately will have to limit our choices for the inception of the virtual version of 1914: Then Came Armageddon. After spending the fall semester perusing, recording, and discussing the plethora of WWI materials included in the original exhibit housed at Special Collections, we had tough choices to make regarding which cases would be featured first online. Guided by the global and impactful themes of the case materials, we decided to send the cases entitled “War Technologies,” “Death and WWI,” “Horrors of War,” as well as stunning panoramic photographs (an example being the one below, depicting the widespread destruction that affected most of France and Belgium) and early war maps to UWDC to be included in the first launch of the digital exhibit.
The “War Technologies” case reflects industrial societies’ mass production of a variety of new weapons to contribute to their countries’ war effort. In 1914, military strategy had not yet fully accounted for advanced, mechanized weapons. The war’s first few battles forced commanders to adapt to new technological realities. Weapons such as the machine gun, tanks, airplanes, submarines, barbed wire, flame-throwers, poison gas, and high-caliber shells fundamentally changed the dynamics of the battlefield, which had remained fairly consistent for the century prior to the Great War. However, the transition to more advanced war weapons and technologies did not happen overnight. Horses would be riding into battle next to tanks, carriages and cars were both used for transportation purposes, and, as captured in the photograph below, telephone wires traversed battlefields on the backs of dogs.
Although a grim subject, death is synonymous with the Great War. New technologies coupled with the scale of the conflict led to unprecedented casualties. Those who managed to survive combat were surrounded by death. Estimates on the number of dead WWI soldiers range from about 8.5 million to 10 million. Dead soldiers were most often buried at or near the battlefield; although after the war, depending on each country’s policy, families could request the bodies of their fallen soldiers. When the military buried bodies, each identifiable soldier received their own grave with their name on it, a departure from the past where only officers received individually-named war graves. This new practice reflected how close civilian-military ties had come to be in this new era of conscription and nationalism. Many soldiers whose remains could not be found became memorialized on walls near war graves.
The war also gave rise to ceremonial tombs to unknown (unidentifiable) soldiers. Images housed at Special Collections capture the many facets of this tragic aspect of World War I, and many of them are housed in a collection entitled Der Weltkrieg im Bild: Frontaufnahmen aus den Archiven der Entente [The World War in Image: Images from the Front from the Entente Archives]. Der Weltkrieg is a collection of WWI photographs bound in two separate volumes. What makes these photographs so powerful is that they do not depict staged or posed moments, but rather true moments of heroism, death, and innovation during decisive moments in WWI. They will be featured prominently in the case reflecting the most tragic aspect of the conflict, “Death and WWI.”
The trove of WWI materials housed at Special Collections truly are a hidden gem of the University. While they are accessible through appointment, digitizing this exhibit and featuring these precious historical sources online will make them immensely more attainable to the public. These first cases published in a digital format will serve as an introduction to the larger themes of the Great War and the experiences that individuals all countries encountered. A further expansion of the exhibit will include a virtual case on each major country involved in the conflict to shed light on the similarities and differences in war experiences and to showcase the breadth of documentation hosted by the University of Wisconsin Special Collection.
Claire Hitter is currently working on her B.A. in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Having recently studied European Jewish history she has developed an interest in the cultural expressions of Judaism. She is especially fascinated by individual stories and has enjoyed the opportunity to write biographical essays for classes. Claire has received Dean’s List recognition for three consecutive semesters and is excited to develop her interests and uncover fascinating stories in her position as the George L. Mosse Department of History Undergraduate Intern.
Nicholas O’Connell is currently working on his B.A. in History and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Born and raised in Italy, Nick developed an interest for 20th Century European History and is particularly fascinated by the rise of Italian Fascism and the insurgency campaigns of Italian partisans. This fall, he will work on his senior thesis with Professor Patrick Iber, focusing on the methodology of analyzing current events in an historical perspective. As a member of the George L. Mosse Program, Nick is thrilled to further explore European modern history.