Family History as Military History

John Walbridge's picture

I am teaching a course on World War I in the MIddle East.

As a way of getting students past their sense that history is something in books that happened, if anywhere, on Mars--or at best on television, the first assignment is "How did World War I affect your family?" To the general chorus of "It didn't," I respond, "Call your grandparents."

The results are very interesting: This year a Canadian-American student's ancestors fought at Vimy Ridge and Paschendaele, and at Verdun on the German side. An Iraqi student's family had vivid memories of the famine during the siege of Kut. Lots of immigrants went into the US army and came out Americans. Another great-grandfather had severe PTSD, moved to a farm to escape his demons, became an alcoholic, and then swore off alcohol in a deal with God to keep his son safe in World War II. A majority of the students had specific information to one extent or another, but the ones who did not knew enough about their family background to make interesting guesses about what their ancestors' experiences must have been. One student found his great-great-grandfather's draft record on Ancestry.com. Quite a lot of them reflected that they would not be here without the events of the war. The history is now more real to my students.

It's a great assignment that could be used for other wars, and I commend it to my colleagues teaching military history (though I am not vain enough to think I am the only one who ever thought of it). World War II and Vietnam would probably produce more detail but less diversity.

John Walbridge

Indiana University