PBS in the Classroom

What is the Lasting Impact of World War I?

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April 10, 2017

For the 100th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in WWI (April 6) and the broadcast premiere of PBS’ THE GREAT WAR (April 10), Jeanne Hamacher has authored an insightful blog post with tips to help you kick off meaningful discussion in your next class.

For additional resources about WWI, visit PBS LearningMedia’s “Soldiers, Veterans, and War in American Life”  and "The Great War" collection.


World War I is not just about trench warfare and poison gas. It is a story of doughboys, airmen, ambulance drivers, Red Cross workers, Hello-girls, Yeomen, doughnut dollies, farmers, war production laborers, suffragists, and pacifists. It’s a fascinating era that - despite its deep and far-reaching impact – seems to have become all too inaccessible for students. How often have you heard the phrase, “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” As an educator, I believe it’s essential that we look for ways to capture students’ attention and help them to understand the impact The Great War left on politics, technology, and culture. To help you start this conversation in your class, consider trying this simple ice-breaker:

Divide the class into four groups – each continuing 6-8 students.  Pass out four sets of pictures described below.  As this stage of the activity is intended for brainstorming, I suggest restricting use of electronic devices so students do not Google answers prematurely.

  • Group A: A male wristwatch; oil rig; prosthetic limb; canned food – preferably beef stew or spaghetti (Note:  these should be current pictures if possible.)
  • Group B:  A person doing Pilates; a woman voting; package of vegetarian sausages; copy of a standardized test – maybe an SAT or ACT (Note:  these should be current pictures if possible.)
  • Group C:  Pictures from WWII, Vietnam, Berlin Wall, European Union Euros
  • Group D:  President Truman; Douglas MacArthur (Korean War picture); Jeanette Rankin (her 1940 Congressional picture); President Eisenhower   

Ask each group to try to find a connection among the pictures. The answer, of course, will be World War I. 

How do each of these pieces connect to WWI?

Group A:

  • A Male Wristwatch: At the start of WW1 a wristwatch was recognized as women's jewelry; but within a year of trench warfare, the impractical male pocket watch was replaced with the wristwatch and its protective "cage" over the glass and radium dials for nighttime use. A wristwatch was necessary to synchronize maneuvers and to deliver supplies in a timely fashion. Today's wristwatch is not only a timepiece, but a minicomputer as well.
  • Oil Rig: Though World War I may have begun with coal power, by war's end it was oil-driven with the internal combustible engine that powered planes, tanks, supply trucks, and mechanized infantry.  At war’s end, the question, which continues to plague us today, became: who will control the oil fields in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and Persia (present-day Iran)? Today when something happens in Iraq or Syria, the price of gasoline rises almost overnight. 
  • Prosthetic Limb: Prosthetics were needed in such vast numbers during WW1 that the United Kingdom turned to standardization for mass production. Aluminum alloy was introduced as the main material for prosthetics instead of wood. Today's prosthetics are designed for the individual, with many containing microchips and robotics. They function more like a natural limb than ever before.
  • Canned Food: Canned food was not new to World War I; however, it was not commonly eaten until the need for easy, mass-produced food that could be quickly delivered to the front arose. After the war, the mass-food production industries focused their advertising on the troops who had grown accustomed to their frontline meals and foods they could not get at home.  Thus, these canned foods found their way into the home.

Group B:

  • Pilates: While spending time in a British internment camp during WWI, German boxer and bodybuilder Joseph Hubertus Pilates motivated fellow inmates, including the bedridden, with exercise programs that promoted movement and health. After the war he and his wife developed his exercise philosophy, which remains popular today.  
  • A woman voting: The suffragist movement in Great Britain and the United States began before the First World War broke out. While many suffragists put aside their activism to work outside the home to support the war effort, some suffragists continued their civil disobedience, willing to be imprisoned for their beliefs.  However, by war’s end, women throughout the western world had proven their importance to the war effort and were rewarded with the vote in many countries throughout the first half of the 20th century.
  • Vegetarian sausages: Because of early food shortages, particularly meat, some Germans ate a cheap meat alternative - vegetarian sausages. These rather tasteless sausages were made from soya, flour, corn, barley and ground rice. Though not incredibly popular at the time, tasty versions of these sausages have found their way into today’s vegetarian diets. 
  • Standardized testing: During 1917 and 1918, the military tested more than 1.5 million men to determine what type of soldier someone may make.  Though one test (Alpha) measured such things as numerical and verbal abilities, another version was typically used for the illiterate or non-English speaking draftees and volunteers.  Following the war, institutions of higher learning relied on the Alpha test to determine class placement for students, perhaps eventually leading to the use of the ACT or SAT in college placement.

Group C:

  • World War II: World War I did not directly cause World War II.  However, WW1 created several consequences which led to a second World War: 
    • New states in Eastern Europe who were weak and ripe for the taking by Hitler.
    • A devastated Germany and France appeased Hitler to prevent another war.
    • U.S. policy of isolationism to avoid being drawn into another European conflict. 
    • In Asia, Japan turned to militarism and began taking over European holdings. 
    • Ineffectual League of Nations.
      During World War II, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin created a new international security agency, the United Nations, with hope of preventing WWIII.
  • Vietnam: The Vietnam War has a distinct connection to the First World War.  On June 18, 1919, Nguyen Ai Quac (Ho Chi Minh) wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing, requesting that the rights of the Vietnamese people in French Indochina be considered during the Paris Peace Conference. His letter was ignored. It is felt that because of the snub by the conference attendees, Nguyen turned to communism. Following World War II, he (now Ho Chi Minh) and his followers will fight the French and the Americans for their independence, with the last Americans leaving Saigon in 1975.
  • Berlin Wall: The Great War destroyed czarist Russia, leading to a Bolshevik revolution and the creation of communist Soviet Union, which feared continual capitalist intervention. Due to Germany’s invasion in 1941, the Soviets built a buffer zone throughout Eastern Europe following WWII to prevent another capitalist invasion. Built in 1961 to separate communist East Berlin from capitalist West Germany, the Berlin Wall stood as the most enduring symbol of the Cold War until it was opened for free passage in 1989.
  • European Union: At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, a young French official proposed European economic cooperation.  However, very few people were interested and instead they went with the harsh economic terms against Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Following the devastation of a second world war, the idea of a unified Europe was seriously considered as an antidote to nationalism. In the 1950s six countries formed what will over the next 30 years become the European Union, a political and economic union of 28 member states.  The EU has a common currency - the Euro, which is used in 19 member countries. In 2016, Britain voted to leave the EU.

Group D:

  • Harry Truman: In WWI, Truman served as captain of a field artillery battery, seeing action in St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. Truman was elected Vice President in 1944 became President in April 1945 upon the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. It was Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan to bring WWII to an end.  Following WWII, Truman issued an Executive Order in July 1948 desegregating the U.S. military. Truman served as President 1945-1953.
  • Douglas MacArthur: In World War I, MacArthur served as commander of the 42nd Division (the “Rainbow Division”) – 1917-1918. He continued to serve his country following the war.  In July 1932 as Chief of Staff of the US Army, he was ordered to clear the Bonus Expeditionary Army marchers (WWI veterans seeking the bonuses they had been promised) from Washington, D.C. During WWII, he led American forces in Pacific campaigns as Supreme Allied Commander, 1941-1945. During the Korean War, MacArthur was commander of the United Nations Command in the Far East 1950-1951.
  • Jeannette Rankin: In 1916, Rankin, an avowed pacifist, was the first female elected to Congress. On April 5, 1917, Rankin voted against the declaration of war. In 1918, Rankin ran for the Senate but was defeated. She spent the inter-war years on social welfare issues and pacifism. In 1940, Rankin was reelected to the House of Representatives.  With the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rankin is called on again to vote on a declaration of war, this time against Japan.  As she casts the only “no” vote in the House, she stated, “As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.”
  • Dwight Eisenhower: Beginning in September 1917, Eisenhower trained officer candidates at Fort Oglethorpe, GA. By 1918, he was a Commander at Camp Colt (Gettysburg), an Army Tank Corps training center. The war ended before he could be sent overseas. He spent the interwar years serving in the Army developing the skills which will be used in World War II, when he served as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. In 1944, he served as the Supreme Commander of Overlord – the D-Day Invasion. Eisenhower served as President of the U.S. from 1953-1961, during which he dealt with Cold War conflicts among his many duties and responsibilities.

For more information on how these connect to the War visit “100 Years 100 Legacies:  The Lasting Impact of World War I” from the Wall Street Journal.  As an extension activity, you could invite students to investigate an item from one of the categories (Politics, Countries, Armaments, Medicine, Culture, Tactics, Economy) and explain how it connected the 20th or 21st century to World War I. 

Now that you have hooked your students’ attention and initiated a conversation, you can expand the discussion to the impacts of the War. Looking for more areas to highlight? Read an overview of several key WWI developments here.

Jeanne Hamacher History Teacher

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