Born in Béziers in 1975, Pierre Purseigle holds a Doctorate in History and is Senior Research Scholar at the Modern European History Research Centre, University of Oxford. A graduate from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Lyon and former Lavoisier Scholar, he studied at the University of California, Berkeley and at Pembroke College, Oxford.
Co-founder and President of the International Society for First World War Studies, he has taught Modern European History at the University of Toulouse and at the University of Oxford. He is the author of several articles and edited Uncovered Fields. Perspectives in First World War Studies (Boston: 2004) and Warfare and Belligerence (Boston: 2005). An historian of the First World War, he is currently writing a book on the process of social mobilization and demobilization in France and Britain between 1914 and 1924.
1. Did the United States win the Great War? (1917 – 1923)
« I’m waiting for tanks and Americans ».
Philippe Pétain’s turn of phrase expresses, in just a few words, all the hope that the possible entry into the war by the United States on the side of the powers of the Entente still sustained in France in 1917. Marked by repeated setbacks of the Allies’ offensive drives and deep moral and political crises, 1917 followed three tragic years, which, in the worst possible way, initiated European societies to the realities of modern warfare. Faced with the intransigence of the belligerents and the hard-line position of a Germany set on forcing a decision by all-out submarine warfare, Woodrow Wilson, even though re-elected in November 1916 on the promise of keeping his country out of the conflict, resigned himself to involving United States in the European war.
Despite being counted since early in the 20th century among the leading economic powers, America was not ready to confront the demands of industrial warfare. The abandonment of an amiable neutrality toward the Entente Powers for a direct military involvement was leading the United States into a redefinition of its role within the international system. The First World War contributed to the crucible of military power acquired at the price of a bitter ordeal. By steering clear of memories and national myths, this discussion will take a look at the multiple levels and forms of the American contribution¾financial, naval, military, and cultural all at the same time¾to the success of the Entente Powers. It will underscore the tensions inherent to the strategic and operational relations established among the Allies. It will ponder the abrupt, halting process of apprenticeship that made it possible for the Americans to accompany the Entente Powers’ march to victory.
2. France-United States, 1914-1918. Alliance of nations and meeting of peoples.
« Lafayette, We Are Here! »
Attributed to Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, these words proclaimed July 4, 1917, by the soldier Charles E. Stanton before Lafayette’s tomb symbolized the «special relationship» French and Americans then enjoyed. The way historians today view the military cooperation between the two republics, however, as well as for the contacts established at that time between their peoples, for the most part previously unpublished, reveals a much more complex reality, which this talk will strive to demonstrate.
Hampered both by the strategic imperatives defined by Wilson and the intransigence of a Pershing fiercely attached to the operational autonomy of his troops, the American Expeditionary Forces had the bitter experience of a conflict where political imperatives too often took precedence over military efficiency. Nevertheless, the First World War constituted a turning point in the history of the American armed forces, which came out of the war bruised and battered while in many respects victorious and stronger because of the ordeal.
The young Americans who landed in June 1917 in Saint-Nazaire were likely to be as unfamiliar with the way the Allied strategy was unfolding as they were with the country whose soil they were tramping around on. Beyond their tragic introduction to the realities of modern warfare, these soldiers also gave themselves over to the discovery of a Europe turned into myth, and quite often reduced to the echoes coming from the Paris of cabarets. The war experience of the doughboys was thus made of a fascination mixed with incomprehension which the people they mingled with returned in equal measure.
3. Can a European history of the First World War be written?
A tragic underscoring of the process of nationalization of the European masses, the Great War inaugurated the «Age of Massacres.» For many historians, it plunged the Old Continent into a «European civil war,» of which the second world conflict would constitute the logical result and the bloody pause. It should come as no surprise that long before the guns became quiet on the Western Front, the historians had tried to account for the military, political, cultural, and technological logic of this war with new urgency. Now, nearly 90 years after the cessation of hostilities, the historians have, for the most part, taken off their military uniforms in order to break with the national versions of events and to participate in a much wider movement of reconciliation with former belligerents.
However, the profound renewal of historiography, which a whole slew of works appearing since the 1970s bear witness to, seems to underscore more than it separates the difficulties and stakes inherent in the construction of a European history of the Great War. In the face of the injunctions of collective memory and the demands of the process of construction of a European political union, historians remain attached to transnational approaches and interdisciplinary areas which have breathed new life into their field of study. This talk proposes to approach a few of the intellectual, cultural, even political issues at stake as a result of attempting to construct a European story of the Great War, mindful all the while of doing justice to new dimensions of the conflict as well as to the complexities of the war experiences.
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