The Importance of Preserving History Through Primary Sources
What does a memory represent? What does it mean to the 7.7 billion individuals that live on Earth today (Current World Population)? John D. Hicks, of Oxford University, once asked his students: What would a man do without a memory? (Hicks). The students were baffled until Hicks gave the example that the man would not know the difference between a door and a window, and would not know what to do next.
The students seemed to understand the pure chaos that would come into this man’s life if he lost all of his memory. He would not remember people, places, things, or processes. He would be completely lost. Hicks then asked, what would a people, a nation, a world do without its memory? (Hicks) and the students erupted in competing voices. They asked how the world could continue to function if all people lost their memory like the first man. John Hicks explained that the functioning would not be possible, and the entire world would plunge into chaos.
History is simply a collection of memories that play a vital role in everybody’s life. Humans constantly are reminded of our past, and learn from it, in order to build a greater future. Steve Berry, a journalist from the Huffington Post, concludes that History serves as a model not only of who and what we are to be, we learn what to champion and what to avoid. Everyday decision-making around the world is constantly based on what came before us. (Berry). Today, more than 30,000 archives, historical societies, libraries, and museums in the United States hold approximately 4.8 billion historical artifacts (Berry). Imagine what one could learn from all of those memories. Now, visualize what the world would lose if those artifacts disappeared. The lack of funding for preserving history in the United States places a third, more than 1.6 billion, of these artifacts at risk for being lost. The libraries, historical societies, archives, and museums preserve humans’ heritage. The artifacts represent and teach us who and what we are. Many historical records have been lost in fires, floods, or purposeful destruction throughout history. Today, the current records of the world are on the verge of being lost on the basis of simple neglect (Berry). Improper funding, low use, and abandonment cause people of power, private funders, and everyday people to stop believing in the power of history. The largest deposit of knowledge in the ancient world could have easily rotted away as a victim of neglect and indifference, and we would never know. However, centennial celebrations often encourage people to rediscover and remember the history of events others left behind. In 2018, this becomes increasingly relevant as the centennial of World War I approaches.
A common history textbook would describe World War I in all of its political fighting and conflicting powers. Before the war, there were five major powers within Europe: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France, and Britain. Prior to August of 1914, two of these major powers were already tied up in political disagreements. Germany was inflicting serious political pressure on France in a show of power. Russia then intervened in the fighting to relieve the pressure on France. Italy, a smaller power in Europe, remained undecided despite their involvement in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The secret agreement did not commit Italy to fight, but the two major powers placed a lot of pressure on the country. Following the first nine months of the war, Italy broke their habit of neutrality by declaring war on Austria-Hungary in 1915. Turning on one of their Allies shocked the world, and Italy’s decision seemed to be influenced by an offer for land in exchange for participation. In response to similar bribes, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece entered the war. These countries were all offered land in exchange for participation in the war for Germany. The major power bombed British warships, killing Americans and initiating America’s involvement in the war. From there, the fighting continued for more than four years between all of these major powers (The Diplomatic Drift). Some would generalize that history is past politics and present politics is future history; however, this is not true as history encompasses much more than just politics, even though textbooks do not leave room for these other aspects (Hicks).
Now, because the textbook description of World War I consistently focuses on politics, the only way to understand the full history of the Great War is to analyze first-hand documents. It is also difficult to trust the authenticity of second-hand accounts of the war because of World War II. World War I was labeled as the war to end all wars, and the details were fresh in everyone’s mind. For the next two decades, people around the world published details of the Great War. However, another global conflict quickly arose which caused the sacrifices of Americans in the first war to be overlooked (Remembering World War I). This is detrimental to history because the small details were not majorly recorded, and more information was forgotten. George Santayana once pointed out, those who forgot their history might be doomed to relive it (Hicks). The small details that do not make it into history textbooks or common recollections, will not be remembered. What other aspects of the war are missing, and what will humanity lose if we do not remember them? E. L. Godkin, a respected journalist, once said, “He who cannot see very far backward cannot see very far forward. (Hicks). This means, if the forgotten small details compile an important aspect of the war, it will be something to remember, but people will not learn from them. An Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Felix Frankfurter, has explained: “There is no inevitability in history except as men make it.” If we are wise, we shall try to plan our course. (Hicks). This follows the logic of Godkin, and the small details that were not properly recorded or remembered after World War I will not be there to guide the future of humanity. It is understood by Santayana, Godkin, and Frankfurter that losing these small details will impact human history, but what are the small details that textbook histories miss? Julius N. Kirk, a soldier in World War I, is just one of the people who provide the missing information.
When the American President, Woodrow Wilson, declared war against Germany, he insisted that the world must be made safe for democracy, and two million doughboys fought for that ideal on the battlefield (Remembering World War I). A soldier from Middletown, Delaware would make a lasting impact on the history of the war. Julius N. Kirk was a Middletown businessman born into a large family. He was born on March 12th, 1893, in Glasgow, DE. As any other man would do, he registered for the draft on June 5th, 1917, and was later called into the force on April 1st, 1918. On a paper resume, his life can be seen as dull and uninteresting. His involvement in the war is summarized by him being wounded in action on October 18, promoted to Sergeant in December, and being discharged in January of 2019. He was trained in marksmanship, bayonet, gas attack and air raid drills, and an incredible amount of marching. Kirk did make the W.W.I. Honor Roll after returning to Delaware, but his achievements were sparse. From this resume, it is difficult to see what Julius Kirk provided to the war if anything at all. However, his success is irrelevant because he did not provide America with a win, he provided history (M.O.T.).
Julius N. Kirk wrote countless letters back home, as well as keeping his own form of a journal. He reassured his loved ones he was alive and well, but also provided a first-hand account of the horrors of the war. His letters described his day to day activities and the battlefields. He did not explain the political powers fighting each other, similar to history textbooks. One of his most vivid letters was written on October 2nd, 1918. Immediately, he explained why he had not written in eighteen days. It was clear he made writing letters a priority. He and his fellow soldiers were constantly fighting on the battlefield for those two weeks. He described how they captured a lot of materials, railroad outfits, ammunition, mules, horses, and more. In the first few days of fighting, friends of Julius discovered that German soldiers were carrying alcohol on the battlefield. This provides evidence that soldiers were unhappy while fighting and drank to ease their thoughts. The psychological effect on the soldiers was serious and evidenced by experienced soldiers carrying booze. Kirk later recorded that he was carrying a pocket knife, a bottle of whiskey, and coffee. Julius likely found the booze on the German soldier while retrieving a pencil he saw the man carrying. His sole writing utensil was one he took of a dead body on the battlefield (AEF Letter). A few months earlier, Julius described an attack he witnesses while traveling with the military on June 2nd. Julius writes the following in his journal: Attack. Two subs destroyed. Note violence of depth bombs scares on ship. Activity of chasers. (War Letters). The next day, he saw warcrafts in the waters. Not only that, he saw a dead boy kept in a lifeboat afloat in the water. He saw countless aviators fly over him constantly, and read in the papers that eleven American warcrafts had been sunk. Julius read this while traveling on an American ship (War Letters). The cognitive influence this had on him, as well on other soldiers, was severely negative and the complexities of the terrors experienced are only justified by first-hand accounts.
In addition to describing violence, Julius recorded the long days and strenuous work of the American soldiers. Before entering the battlefield, Kirk was instructed that his rifle and gas mask would be his best friends. However, in one of his letters, he said he found more use in his pick and shovel (AEF Letter). He had large blisters on his fingers and hands from digging for three nights due to the advancing positions of the enemy. 200-300 shells were also dropping on the American soldiers per minute as they dug holes (AEF Letter). On June 27th, 1918, Julius recorded the following in his journal: Moving at 12:00 without dinner, hiked ten miles, full pack, return at six pm. Tired plus sore feet. return to same billets drilled on the field until ten am, [and] went 12 hours without eat[ing]” (War Letters). On the 28th, they arose at 6:25 am and stayed on guard until four. The next day, they woke up at three in the morning and returned from the field at 4:30 pm. On July 2nd, Julius arose at five am, arrived at the field at seven, and returned at four pm. He mentioned it was “hot during day at noon”, which is one of the last things historians would think about when studying the difficulties of fighting soldiers. On July 3rd, the soldiers arose at 5 am, listened to instructions on trench fighting and grenades, then ate lunch on the battlefield. They spent the afternoon working on extended order drilling combat and ate stew for dinner at 5:30 pm (War Letters).
This first-hand account of the horrors and pains of the war provides historians with a large amount of information on the facets of the war that impacted the soldiers forced into drafts. The common textbook history discussed earlier would not have mentioned these events. The images described by Julius N. Kirk could be seen as too horrifying, but it is most likely excluded from history because it is not seen as important by itself. When the journals of several soldiers are analyzed, there are overwhelming accounts of fear, death, and physical labor that showcase the extremities of the war. The five political powers in Europe quickly engaged in fighting and drafted numerous soldiers to place on the battlefield, without accounting for the impacts on the men. The information the Julius preserved in his journal and letters is very valuable to fully remembering the war. Julius Kirk was not a decorated soldier in his time during the war, but he is immensely decorated and important to historians today.
Currently, the National Archives have been scrambling to preserve and digitalize primary records from the Great War including letters, photographs, and film. As their work progressed, they developed a resource to World War I that is incomparable to others. An app was launched to make photographs and film more accessible to the general public. Specifically, the app was designed for educators and the museum community but anyone interested in exploring the Great War has access (Remembering World War I). The National Archives also partnered with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. All three institutions provided content for the app. In addition, the WWI Centennial Commission, American Association for State and Local History, and the National WWI Museum and Memorial contributed to remembering World War I through this technology (Remembering WWI from??¦). All in all, the government is projected to spend fifty million dollars on commemorations of the Great War (Mount). These celebrations and technological resources would not be available if not for men such as Julius N. Kirk and the people who helped to preserve his letters after he returned. Harry Mount, a simple journalist for The Telegraph, reminds us No one [can] argue with the desire obligation, even for modern generations to remember the war, especially not as its centenary approaches. (Mount).
Berry, Steve. Why Preserving History Matters. The Huffington Post,
TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 June 2012,
Current World Population. World Population Clock: 7.7 Billion People (2018) –
Hicks, John D. Changing Concepts of History. The Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 2, no.
1, 1971, pp. 2135. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/967675.
Julius N. Kirk. An AEF Letter. 2 October 1918. Pages 1-3.
Julius N Kirk. War Letters. 30 May 1918 to 4 July 1918. Pages 1 – 14.
M.O.T. Answers the Call, a World War One Exhibition. August 2017 – August 2018.
Mount, Harry. How Should We Remember the First World War? The Telegraph, Telegraph
Media Group, 9 June 2013,
Remembering World War I. National Archives and Records Administration, National
Archives and Records Administration,
Remembering WWI from the US National Archives. Remembering WWI from the US
National Archives – World War I Centennial,
The Diplomatic Drift towards War: 1890-1914. HISTORY OF THE FIRST WORLD
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