Teaching World War I from Multiple Perspectives

Stuart J. Foster and Richard Rosch

Eighty years ago, on April 6, 1917 to be precise, the United States entered the First World War. American troops soon became embroiled in one of the most bloody and, arguably, most futile conflicts of the modern era. The war, which raged from the summer of 1914 to the fall of 1918, claimed the lives of over ten million people and profoundly shaped many of the major social, economic, political, and cultural forces salient in the 20th century.
In political terms alone, World War I and its aftermath assisted the rise of Communism in Russia, led to the break up of the Turkish and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and inspired enough resentment among the defeated Germans to encourage the rise of Nazism. Because of its enormous significance, the First World War serves as a landmark event in history courses in America's schools. Indeed, its inclusion in both U.S. and world history textbooks is guaranteed.

Significantly, however, an analysis of six world history textbooks commonly used in U.S. high schools reveals that the war is most frequently depicted from the limited viewpoint of the United States and her allies.1 Almost without exception, textbooks focus only on events affecting those nations viewed as the central protagonists in the U.S./European tradition (i.e., Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States). Coverage of World War I appears driven by the principle that the chief purpose of school history textbooks is to transmit the values and knowledge of the dominant U.S./Eurocentric culture.2

To some extent, attention to this group of nations is understandable. The majority of people who lost their lives in the war were white soldiers and civilians from Europe, Russia, and the United States. Furthermore, national leaders who profoundly affected decisions during the course of the war and thereafter originated from the world's major economic, political, and military powers.

Nevertheless, the near total absence from textbooks of other cultures, nationalities, and ethnic groups who were actively involved in the conflict determines that students will come to know the war from an alarmingly narrow perspective. They will not learn, for example, about the 1.4 million Indian soldiers who fought for the allied cause during the war, or the huge number of West African troops engaged in the tragic Battle of the Somme, or the more than 100,000 Vietnamese who were conscripted by the French to serve on the Western Front.

Accordingly, this article presents information, materials, and suggestions that offer an alternative approach to teaching about World War I. First, a brief review of the treatment of peoples typically ignored in world history textbooks is offered, in order to establish the need for broader and richer perspectives on international involvement in the war. Second, an account of the active participation of peoples "hidden" from the traditional view is provided in order to elevate the significance of their contributions. Third, some suggestions for improving classroom practice by including multiple perspectives on the war are outlined.

World War I in Six Textbooks
One of the most striking revelations of our analysis of six high school world history textbooks was their remarkable similarity. For example, each devoted an entire chapter to the war, allocated between 17 and 20 pages to it, and encapsulated the conflict under broad titles such as "World War I" and "War and Its Aftermath." Furthermore, the six texts were almost identical in their coverage of central topics. Characteristic of each text was a broad focus on events before, during, and after the war. In addressing events leading up to the war, every textbook featured Europe's pre-war military alliances, colonial rivalries, and international tensions in the Balkans.
Coverage of the war years revealed many other textbook commonalities. Typical entries focused on the "Western Front," "Trench Warfare," and "U.S. Entry into the War," and offered a cursory portrayal of other theaters of war, such as the Eastern Front, fighting in the Dardenelles, and the Middle East. Most of the textbooks reported the war's aftermath similarly by focusing on the peace treaties, the League of Nations, and the cost of war. Another common element was the inclusion of separate topical features, such as "The Russian Revolution," the "War at Sea," "New Weapons," and the "Home Front."

Some deviation in their otherwise monolithic content occurred when textbooks introduced additional materials. Most of the textbooks analyzed were rich in pictorial sources, with one defying conventional photographs of American or European troops in combat by including a picture of troops from Australia and New Zealand attacking Turkish forces at Gallipoli. Other more original approaches included a special section on the role of women in the war (Book A, 634; Book C, 639-640; Book E, 634); exercises that required a brief analysis of primary source material (Book A, 628, 631; Book B, 581; Book E, 631; Book F, 592); and information linking geographic content to the study of history (Book C, 630; Book D, 599; Book E, 639).

Nevertheless, apart from these isolated examples of innovation, textbooks typically adopted a traditional approach to content, viewing the war from a Western-and essentially a United States-perspective. Of great significance was the failure of any textbook to fully examine the war's impact on peoples beyond the European fronts and the Middle East.

For example, conflicts in Africa that claimed the lives of thousands received fleeting attention. Indeed, one textbook entirely ignored the spread of war into Africa (Book B). The other five textbooks devoted a maximum of one paragraph, out of an average total chapter coverage of 19 pages, to events on the African continent. In addition, the war's impact on Asia and the Pacific was frequently incorporated into this solitary paragraph. A representative sample of this abbreviated textbook coverage is the following extract:

The War in Asia and Africa. Far from the battlefields of Europe, places in Africa and Asia also saw fighting. Japan declared war against Germany within a few weeks after war had broken out in Europe. The Japanese quickly overran German possessions in China and captured most of Germany's Pacific island colonies. In Africa, the British and French conquered most of Germany's possessions. In German East Africa (modern Tanzania), however, Germany managed to hold out to the bitter end. (Book F, 593)
The absence of any substantive information about the wartime contributions of peoples beyond Europe and the United States is further exposed when one looks at the portrayal of fighting on the Western Front. Here, in an area afforded extensive coverage in every textbook, only one offered any reference-albeit very brief-to the fact that France and Britain "called up forces from their huge overseas dominions and colonial empires." (Book F, 602) Every other textbook chose to ignore the significant involvement of troops from such countries as Senegal, Uganda, Nigeria, Vietnam, Canada, and more.

In addition, of the many dozen printed questions contained in each of the textbooks, only one question required students to think about the conflict beyond the conventional theaters of war. However, due to the paucity of information contained in the text, it is unlikely that students could meet the requirement to evaluate "in what ways did the war involve parts of Asia, the Pacific, and Africa?" (Book C, 634)

In sum, analysis of six widely-used world history textbooks revealed that, despite the wartime involvement of significant numbers of people from nations across the globe, textbooks universally underplayed and selectively ignored their many contributions. As a result, students generally learn to view World War I as a conflict that almost exclusively involved white soldiers fighting on European soil. However, as the next section illustrates, to present the war in this way demonstrates both the cultural bias and the historical inaccuracy implicit in these textbooks.

Broader Perspectives on World War I
A broad examination of the many theaters of fighting reveals the extent to which peoples of varying ethnicities and nationalities were involved in World War I. Throughout the war, European imperialist powers required many colonies to contribute manpower and resources to the war effort. In particular, France and Britain, who controlled vast colonial holdings from South East Asia to North America, exhibited few reservations about using men and resources from their protectorates and dominions. While a thorough analysis of the extent of colonial involvement in World War I is beyond the scope of this article, a few brief examples can serve to illustrate the global nature of the conflict.

A Truly Global Conflict
Though the United States is universally associated with World War I, little mention is generally made of Canadian involvement in the war. For example, high school students who studied only these textbooks might never know that Canada contributed roughly 640,000 troops to the British war effort, 57,000 of whom died as a result of the conflict.3 The contributions of China are typically overlooked in textbook coverage. Though less involved than citizens of many countries, some 175,000 Chinese were recruited by the British to serve in their Labor Corps. A combined force of over 50,000 Chinese and Indian laborers died on the Western Front, often working in close proximity to German guns, some serving directly on the front line.4
Indochina similarly was drawn into the war. Estimates suggest that Vietnam contributed between 94,000 and 140,000 people to the allied (specifically French) war effort. Significantly, the often repressive measures used to enlist Vietnamese "volunteers" provoked riots throughout southern Vietnam, and resistance to coerced conscription led to the formation of "secret societies" designed actively to combat French recruitment.5

The involvement of these and other colonial armies highlights the fact that World War I was a far larger conflict than our history textbooks might indicate. A more concentrated focus on the fighting in Africa further reveals this fact.

Fighting on African Soil
In Africa, the four main arenas of conflict were the campaigns in Togoland, Cameroon, South West Africa, and German East Africa. The Togoland campaign was the shortest in duration, with Anglo-French forces defeating meager German resistance within weeks. African involvement in the fighting was minimal, in part due to the limited extent of the campaign. More significant was the role played by Africans as laborers and porters. Britain drew upon the manpower resources of the nearby colony of Gold Coast (modern Ghana) for carriers, using 600 Africans as laborers-a capacity many also fulfilled in the European theaters of war.
Allied goals in Togoland centered around the destruction of a German wireless station some one hundred miles inland at Kamina. This was one of the main points of Germany's communication network throughout Africa. Another motive was surely profit. Togoland was a successful agricultural colony under German control. Allied success in Togoland followed three weeks of fighting in August 1914, after which the colony was subdivided between British and French rule.6

The campaign in Cameroon was longer, lasting from 1914 until 1916. Allied goals in Cameroon were much the same as in Togoland: to capture and dismantle an important German wireless station in Duala that provided a needed communications link for German ships in the South Atlantic. Early German successes prompted the British to amass a combined force of Nigerians and West and Central Africans. Under the leadership of C. M. Dobell, the Anglo-French-led African troops and naval forces conquered the port of Duala, forcing the surrender of 500 German and 3,000 African troops in late September 1914.7 By early 1916, allied troops forced the surrender of the German's last interior stronghold at Mora.8

Native African involvement in the South West African campaign was less significant, in part due to the existing transportation system, which decreased the demand for African carriers. Several thousand Africans were enlisted to help manage the ox wagons that constituted a key element of the transportation network. However, both German and British leaders made a determined effort not to arm the Africans, because-according to historian Melvin Page-they "had agreed with the African leaders of the colony to make no military demands upon the indigenous peoples."9

The Campaign in East Africa
The war in German East Africa was a far greater conflict than any of the other three. Under the tenacious leadership of General Paul von Lettow-Voerbeck, German-African forces between August and December 1914 attacked both British East Africa to the north and Nyasaland to the south. Lettow-Voerbeck had extensive colonial experience and, by 1914, had assembled and effectively trained a force of 250 European officers and 5,000 African troops. This number increased to some 20,000 African Askari and carriers by 1916.10
One noteworthy German success involved repulsing an ill-conceived amphibious assault on the Indian Ocean port of Tanga in 1915.11 This battle pitched colonial troops against each other. The bulk of the fighting on the German side was borne by Africans, while nearly all of the 8,000-man British force was Indian. After three days of disorganized and poorly planned fighting, the British and Indian troops withdrew-defeated by the enemy as well as unforeseen obstacles in the form of sweltering heat and humidity, and an attack by colonies of wild bees.12

After 1916, German forces were gradually weakened by increasing British offensives. Following the embarrassment of Tanga, the British changed commanders, giving General Jan Christian Smuts charge of the East African theater. Like his German counterpart, Smuts had extensive experience in bush warfare and whittled away at Lettow-Voerbeck's diminishing company. Nevertheless, the German forces made excellent use of their road and rail system, and were able to move throughout East Africa, Northern Rhodesia, and Portuguese territory, delaying formal surrender until twelve days after the Armistice was signed in Europe.

Throughout the conflict in East Africa, British forces depended heavily on African manpower. The British actively recruited in British East Africa, Uganda, Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia, and even Mozambique. These men were organized into the King's African Rifles (KAR), creating a force of more than 30,000 troops by 1918.13 African carriers were essential in East Africa. Though the Germans did have an extensive transportation network, they destroyed what road and rail links they could as they retreated.14

Typical conditions for native carriers in East Africa were arduous. They were often paid little, carried back-breaking loads, were poorly fed, and possessed inadequate equipment and clothing. Consequently, death rates for Africans were high. In the British labor corps alone, some 20,000 African porters died of disease while assisting the advance of allied armies.15 Given the length of the campaign, the British were also forced to employ Portuguese, Belgian, Indian, West Indian, Rhodesian, Nigerian, and South African troops, totaling over 120,000 people. By the end of the conflict, many of these armies were withdrawn to fight elsewhere, leaving the KAR to handle the remaining battles in Africa.

The campaign in East Africa is also noteworthy for resembling-more than any other campaign in Africa-fighting on the Western Front. The length of the conflict was nearly equal in duration to the bitter fighting in Europe. Modern machines (for example, trucks and airplanes) and battle strategies (trench warfare) that characterized the Western Front were also employed in Africa. Finally, the combatants originated from highly diverse backgrounds.

Fighting in Africa was therefore considerable, and the role of Africans in the British, French and German war efforts on this continent proved remarkable. In one author's estimation, some 200,000 to 250,000 Africans died in the combined African, European, and Mesopotamian campaigns, representing a death rate of slightly more than 10 percent of the two million who saw service as soldiers and laborers during the war.16 Though it is true that certain texts mention the campaigns in Africa, and specifically in East Africa, the conspicuous absence of the African contribution to them is cause for concern. Even more troublesome is the textbook omission of the role of African and Indian troops who experienced active duty on the Western Front.

The Western Front
The Indian Expeditionary Forces
The scale of Indian and African involvement outside their respective countries and continents was impressive. After war was declared in 1914, the British government in India expeditiously mobilized its troops to support the war effort. In early September, the Indian Expeditionary Force A (IEF-A) was organized and soon dispatched to France. Led by British officers, the 24,000 troops of the IEF-A arrived in Marseilles and served with distinction on the Western Front.17 By the year's end, the IEF-A would see action at Ypres, a battle in which they sacrificed greatly and provided needed reinforcement to a beleagured British army. The IEF-A sustained heavy casualties in the Neuve Chappelle offensive in May 1915. The conditions it faced were particularly harsh. As one wartime participant remarked:
They came to a country where the climate, the language, the people, and the customs, were entirely different from any of which they had knowledge. They were presently faced with the sharp severity of a Northern winter. They, who had never suffered heavy shell fire, who had no experience of high explosive, who had never seen warfare in the air, who were totally ignorant of modern trench fighting, were exposed to all the latest and most scientific developments of the art of destruction.18
Other companies of Indian troops were subsequently formed and served in various theaters of conflict. For example, the IEF-B fought in East Africa, while the IEF-C and IEF-D saw action in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). In all, some 1.4 million Indians were used in a variety of ways by the British, with 850,000 leaving India to serve elsewhere. India's loss of life was considerable. The IEF-B lost nearly 3,000 men in East Africa, while the IEF-C's death rate was nearly ten times that in Mesopotamia.

The scale of Indian participation, however, went far beyond these figures. India contributed some 55,000 people to the British Labor Corps, &POUND80 million in military supplies, hundreds of thousands of livestock, and gifts of cash exceeding &POUND100 million. Yet textbooks consistently fail to mention the significant contribution of Indian troops and resources during the war.

West African Forces in the European Theater
The situation is similar with regard to the experience of West African forces assembled by the French and employed on the Western Front throughout the war. Although some 135,000 West Africans were conscripted as combatants, no mention is made of their involvement in any of the textbooks analyzed.
The enthusiasm exhibited by some Indian leaders toward the war effort seems a far cry from the attitudes of the West Africans. Drafting procedures were coercive, as French officials threatened local chiefs with imprisonment in order to ensure sufficient numbers of conscripts. After a physical training session rife with indiscriminate brutality and flogging, newly-inducted men faced the more daunting prospect of sailing to Bordeaux. As historian Joe Harris Lunn remarked of the emergent culture shock, "For all aboard ship, the crossing was a journey beyond the bounds of knowledge; most had never left their village and few had seen the ocean."19 Once in France, these soldiers experienced segregation and isolation from the larger French army and French society in general.

French use of colonial West African troops varied throughout the war. In the first two years, they were deployed sparingly, though the West African corps served notably on the Marne and Yser. In addition, the Senegalese suffered casualties at the Battle of the Marne so severe that their units were disbanded because too few men had survived.20 As the war became protracted and the outlook more ominous, French use of West African troops increased. African units often spearheaded assaults, serving as "shock troops." This led to an astonishingly high death rate among the West African soldiers on the Western Front, sometimes as much as 25 percent higher than their French counterparts.21

In the final two years of the war, West African combatants saw action on the Somme and at Verdun and the Chemin des Dames. Moroccan units were essential in the defense of Paris. Indeed, in a remarkable testament to their accomplishments, the Moroccan army went on to become the most decorated unit in the French army.22

The absence of any serious attention to these accomplishments is unfortunate. Too often, the multicultural nature of the fighting forces assembled on the Western Front and beyond is ignored in the pages of world history texts. As a consequence, students come to know the affairs of World War I from an extremely limited perspective. The following section challenges the belief that educators should or must adopt such an inevitably narrow view. Above all, it provides a rationale for changing how some historical events are commonly portrayed, and suggests practical alternatives to conventional classroom practices.

Teaching the Broader View
One of the most important decisions that any teacher makes in designing his or her curriculum revolves around the perennial question of what should be taught. Out of expedience, educators are required to judiciously select the topics to be covered in class. Teachers, however, should not overlook the importance of allowing students to research historical topics and construct their own personal accounts of past events.
An effective way to incorporate multiple perspectives in the classroom is to divide the class into research teams and ask students to choose and investigate particular areas of inquiry. For example, one group studying World War I might research the wartime experiences of soldiers from India. Another might focus on the actions of troops from Canada or Australia. Still others might examine the involvement of combatants from identified African countries. The bibliographical references at the end of this article provide an excellent starting point for such research. Teachers and students may also choose to focus attention on diverse groups within countries (for example, women, religious minorities, recent immigrants, or people of color).

The wartime experiences of black troops from the United States offer fascinating insights into both racial attitudes during World War I, and the accomplishments of black soldiers. Significantly, the more than 50,000 black troops in 115 units constituted over one-third of the entire U.S. force in Europe. Nevertheless, despite their loyal and courageous efforts, black soldiers faced explicit racism within the armed forces. Indeed, General Pershing requested French officers not to "eat with blacks, shake hands, or seek to meet them outside of military service."23 Pershing also insisted that the Allies not praise black troops in the presence of white troops. Students should be encouraged to research information such as this in order to gain a more informed and richer appreciation of the war from many perspectives.

After a specified period of investigation, including class time and homework assignments, the research teams might then (a) prepare a summary report for each member of the class, or (b) share their findings in a short classroom presentation. Follow-up discussion might focus on issues such as the scale and nature of various national and ethnic contributions; the similarities and differences in the wartime experiences of different peoples; the attitude of soldiers from the "major powers" toward peoples from various ethnic groups and nationalities fighting for or against them; and the attitudes of colonial or minority ethnic groups toward white troops and the military leadership.

Attention to the significant wartime contributions of peoples throughout the world enables students and teachers to explore the dynamic interplay between differing cultures, and the many reciprocal relationships established during wartime. Accordingly, students have the opportunity to discover that events in the past were shaped not only as a result of the actions of dominant national forces, but through the continual interaction and interconnection of many racial and ethnic groups.24

Discussion could then broaden to consider such questions as:

Questions such as these are in keeping with the practices of critical pedagogy,25 and underscore the perspectival and interpretative nature of history.26 Furthermore, such questions strike at the very core of the historical method, which seeks to investigate dilemmas such as: Is the source of information biased? Why are some materials and subjects chosen and some omitted? How reliable and valid is the historical source? How can historians best construct an accurate view of the past?

Unquestionably, enormous benefits can be derived from the study of World War I from a variety of perspectives. Not only will students become more informed about the course of the war and the varied experiences of its participants; they will also acquire a sensitivity toward, and an appreciation of, the contributions of people traditionally excluded from mainstream histories. Moreover, by incorporating multiple perspectives, students will be encouraged to think critically about the information they conventionally receive in schools and the implicit values that

underpin curriculum choices. Ultimately, serious reflection on any historical event from a variety of differing viewpoints helps students to acquire the skills essential to becoming an informed, rational, active, and compassionate citizen.

1. The six world history textbooks analyzed were: Book A: Peter N. Stearns, Donald R. Schwartz, and Barry K. Beyer, World History: Traditions and New Directions (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1990); Book B: Gerald Leinwand, The Pageant of World History (Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990); Book C: Marvin Perry, Allan H. Scholl, Daniel F. Davis, Jeanette G. Harris, Throdore H. Von Laue, The History of the World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990); Book D: Ross E. Dunn, Links Across Time and Place: A World History (Evanston, IL: McDougall, Littell and Co., 1990); Book E: Burton F. Beers, World History: Patterns of Civilization (Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990); Book F: Steven L. Jantzen, Larry S. Krieger, and Kenneth Neill, World History: Perspectives on the Past (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1990). Within this article, individual references include the book designation and page(s). (e.g., Book A, 286).
2. For critical analysis of how textbooks commonly serve to transmit the conservative values of the dominant culture see, for example: James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (New York: New Press, 1995); Rodney F. Allen, "History Textbooks, Critical Reading, and Censorship" in John S. Simmons, ed., Censorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, Thinking (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1994); and Michael W. Apple and Linda K. Christian-Smith, The Politics of the Textbook (New York: Routledge, 1991).
3. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of World War I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 130.
4. Ibid., 135.
5. Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 31, 42; and Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, Volume 1 (New York and London: F. A. Praeger, 1967), 96.
6. Gilbert, 31.
7. Ibid.
8. Spencer C. Tucker, ed., European Powers and the First World War: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publications, 1996), 7.
9. Melvin Page, ed., Africa and the First World War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), 10.
10. Gilbert, 31.
11. Page, 12.
12. Byron Farwell, The Great War in Africa 1914-1918 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1986), 162-175.
13. Page, 13.
14. Ibid.
15. Gilbert, 97.
16. Page, 14.
17. Tucker, 353.
18. John W. B. Merewether and Frederick E. Smith, The Indian Corps in France (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1917), ix.
19. Page, 35.
20. Tucker, 262.
21. Page, 39.
22. Tucker, 262.
23. Robert W. Mullen, Blacks in America's Wars (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), 44.
24. Catherine Cornbleth and Dexter Waugh, The Great Speckled Bird: Multicultural Politics and Education Policymaking (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).
25. Cleo H. Cherryholmes, "Critical Pedagogy and Social Education" in Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe, eds., Handbook on Teaching Social Issues (Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1996), 75-80.
26. Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997), 3-5; Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History? (London: Macmillan, 1961), 7-30; and Linda Levstik, "Anyone's History Is Someone's History: Listening to Multiple Voices from the Past," Social Education 61, 1 (1997): 48-51.

Stuart J. Foster is assistant professor and Richard Rosch is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Social Science Education, College of Education, University of Georgia in Athens.