The Great War, Modernity, and Memory

February 15, 2018
Sophomores immerse in the study of World War I

By Sydney Collins, ‘20

For Cameron Bonsell, ‘20, World War I has held a profound interest for him since elementary school, but he wasn’t sure he’d have the chance to study it in-depth. “World War I is something that I’ve always been really interested in but I wasn’t really going to have time to study that in school because I’m not a history major,” Bonsell said, who is majoring in philosophy and mathematics.

However, through the University’s Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) program, he received a learning experience unlike anything he could have imagined.

History and American Studies professor Eric Yellin’s course, The Great War, Modernity, and Memory focuses on the American consciousness that resulted from the First World War. Through this course, students had the opportunity to gain knowledge of this historical war in an atypical setting, where students live together, take a class together, and travel together to immerse themselves in a subject.

The class is taught in the style of a history seminar, encouraging students to look at primary sources and ask questions historians have been wondering for years. The course revolves around addressing the domestic experience of the War in America and how it affected American mindsets and social movements. 

“I think one of the big effects that it had was the way it changed people and how they viewed race,” said Bonsell. “America was very segregated in the early 20th century, and while not a lot changed, this was one of the first times that people were brought together. It really changed the way we view ourselves as Americans as a whole cohesive unit and not separated into subgroups.”

After the group learned about the effects of the War on American society, the group traveled to France and Belgium during winter break in order to personally experience and compare the different ways in which Europe and America were affected by the War.

Yellin chose to travel to France and Belgium because the two countries were critical to the Western Front where most of the American soldiers served. As America entered the war three years after it began, and the ramifications of participating in the conflict were not felt as deeply, he also thought it was important for his students to see the firsthand impact abroad.

“We don’t really live with World War I memory,” Yellin said. “But when you go to Belgium, when you go to northern France, you live with the War memory in this really intense way. If you drive through western Belgium or Flanders, every mile there is a cemetery from World War I. You suddenly find yourself in the middle of gigantic memorials and a landscape that’s scarred by this war. It was really stunning to all of us.”

The class travelled through the cities of Brussels, Ghent, Lille, Flanders and Paris, visiting cemeteries and memorials along the way to find signs of the War’s impact on society and how the locals remember their ancestors. Bonsell said that it was interesting to see how Europeans today continue to put photographs and flowers on the graves of those who participated in a war over a hundred years ago.

Additionally, walking through battlefields helped give Bonsell a first-hand perspective on the type of warfare they extensively discussed in their classroom.

“My favorite moment was when we got to go to the trenches in France; I’ve been a World War I nerd since sixth grade and one of my dreams was to actually go in the trenches,” he said. “To me, it was surreal. I went in some of the pillboxes and went up to where they have machine gun turrets. There was just so much history that happened there and it was so powerful to actually be where hundreds of thousands of people spent their lives. It was an incredible, moving experience.”

The combination of class discussions and an international trip allowed students to form connections between the influence of the War on both the United States and European nations. For the spring semester, the students will create capstone projects in which they address and research a certain aspect of the course and then present their findings in the form of a project. Yellin believes that his students will be able to establish valid comparisons of the wartime experience between various nations as well as distinctive time periods.

“In the simplest sense, the learning outcome is the capacity to understand lived experience and wartime experience in a time very different from our own,” Yellin said. “We travel back to the past and, in nonjudgmental way, try to understand this moment and how people experienced it. And once we know that, we step back and say in what way does that show today?”