Teacher's Guide : Killing Fields

In 1914 soldiers across Europe march to war with visions of glory. Thousands perish under dehumanizing conditions worsened by modern military technology. The war leaves millions dead, empires shattered, new countries formed, and nations determined to seek revenge.

Unit Themes and Topics:
disillusionment with war
military technology
trench warfare
World War I

Connections Across History
connection: when: where: program:
antiwar efforts 1919- 1935 France, Germany, Great Britain, United States "Lost Peace"

Hermine Venot-Focké
(World War I volunteer, France)

"We didn't think for one moment that the war would go on for so long or that it would be so cruel"
photographic portrait of Hermine Venot-Focké


Before Watching

1. What does Hermine Venot-Focké's quotation tell you about people's expectations of and experiences in World War I? What factors or past experiences do you think contributed to these expectations?

2. As students watch the program, have them take notes on how people's expectations were different from what actually happened in the war.

After Watching

1. What expectations did the speakers in the program have at the beginning of the war? How realistic were these expectations? How did their attitudes change during and after the war?

2. What made the war "so cruel" for the speakers in the program? How did military technology make this war more physically and psychologically devastating than previous wars? How did trench warfare affect the fighting and the soldiers' lives?


Discuss how people coped and helped others cope in World War I. Examples might include creating a trench newspaper, comforting a dying soldier, or sharing food when you're hungry. Ask students to think about how they might cope or help others cope with battlefield or hospital conditions. Encourage students to think about elements in the program that affected people, such as food shortages and boredom. Have students take on the role of a soldier, doctor, or nurse and write a letter home describing the conditions, their feelings, and how they are coping.

To increase students' understanding of how individual soldiers were affected by World War I, have them read the book All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Then have them write a book review that addresses the following questions: What do you think Remarque's goal was in writing this book? What did you learn about soldiers' experiences? Whose perspectives were included? Whose perspectives weren't? What was lost or missed by not including these perspectives? How does Remarque use language to create images and evoke sympathy for different characters?

The Horror of Mechanized War

The following lesson focuses on a program segment about the battles of the Somme and Verdun. Veterans describe the futility and brutality of trench warfare, the abysmal state of medical technology, and the growing despair among soldiers.

Program Segment
approximately 25 minutes

The narrator says that soldiers on both sides were exposed to the greatest dangers when attempts were made to break the stalemate.

The end of the program


Before Watching

1. What was trench warfare? What images do you associate with it? As students watch the program segment, have them write down adjectives describing people's recollections of trench warfare in the battles of Somme and Verdun.

After Watching

1. What adjectives would you use to describe the scenes in the program segment? Which scenes affected you the most and why? Did anything in the segment change the way you feel about war? If so, how?

2. What caused the psychological scars referred to in the program segment? How would you describe those scars?

3. If you were a soldier in this war, how do you think your experiences might have changed your attitudes toward military, political, or religious leaders? How might the attitudes toward authority that people expressed in the program have affected society after the war?

4. How do you think people viewed war after World War I? Consider the perspectives of soldiers, civilians, and military and political leaders. How do you think they coped with their feelings about war? How do you think those who were against war tried to prevent it from happening again?


Ask students to use the adjectives they have compiled to write a personal reflection on the psychological impact of World War I. They can create a poem, journal entry, or letter that illustrates the thoughts and feelings of someone in the war as he or she struggles to find meaning in the experience.

Have students write a short oral report that identifies and analyzes a work or movement in art or literature of the era, related to the experiences described in the program. Works could include the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, or Rupert Brooke. Movements could include Dadaism, Surrealism, or Constructivism; Bauhaus architecture; the advent of atonal music; or modernism in opera and ballet. Encourage students to bring in samples -- recordings, pictures, etc. After students present their reports, discuss the common themes among the reports.

Program Summary

Use the following information to assist in finding specific segments within the program. The times listed on the left indicate minutes into the program.

02:00 A complex system of international alliances and old vendettas against other nations combine with a nationalist fervor, enthusiasm and naivety from the European population create an extremely volatile situation. Most people assume the war will end quickly with an easy victory.

06:00 Global aspects of the war. European powers soon draw on Asian and African colonies for additional manpower and resources. As part of the British Empire, Canada and Australia are drawn in. Eventually the United States enters the war as well.

10:00 Technology creates devastating changes in warfare. Traditional training and strategies combine fatally with the new killing machines. Slow, drawn-out trench warfare replaces the rapid victories.

16:00 Life in the trenches. Soldiers wait endlessly. Quality of food declines rapidly through the war.

18:00 Industrial power plays a key role in the war. Meanwhile, Colonial troops must adjust to the European winter.

20:00 Conditions on the Eastern Front. Medical facilities and sanitation are especially bad.

24:00 Growth of Propaganda. Movies are used to increase enthusiasm for the war.

27:00 1916 British and French High command attempts to break the stalemate with artillery barrage and fails. Sixty-thousand British casualties. Clear schism between the army and the commanders.

36:00 Effects of Gas and other new weapons. Horrendous injuries. Growth in science unmatched by medicine. Lack of pain killers. Surgery often little more than making the dying more comfortable.

40:00 Germans launch diversionary attack on Verdun. France drafts older and older soldiers. Soldiers come to feel they are simply sacrifices.

42:00 The Nightmare of War: rats, piles of corpses, shell shock.

47:00 French troops refuse to fight. Effects more drastic in Russia. Many Russian troops desert and Army disintegrates after October Revolution.

50:00 U.S. enters the war, helping to break the stalemate.

52:00 War ends. War is no longer quick or glorious. 9 million killed. True meaning of industrialized warfare realized. 4 Empires have fallen over the course of the war. People now more suspicious of leaders and commanders.

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