“If You Want to Understand War…”

November 22, 2008 at 3:42 pm 5 comments

I seem to be on a kick lately where I’m attending a lot of faculty talks. We on the magazine staff don’t do enough of this; we don’t get out nearly as much as we should. It’s so easy to get caught up in meeting our deadlines and skip the lunchtime concert or the late-afternoon seminar—and yet every time I make the effort to go to one of these things, I come away glad that I did.


Sophie de Schaepdrijver looks up an image for a Huddle attendee after her talk

So today I went to the final Huddle with the Faculty program of the football season, this one with a faculty member in the history department by the name of Sophie de Schaepdrijver (pronounced, as nearly as I can tell, as “shepp-driver”). She’s from Belgium and has been on the Penn State faculty for eight years. One of her areas of study is World War I, and her talk—called “Memories of Mass Death: the Great War in Europe”—was fascinating. I learned what an incredible impact the war had on Europe—for example, she said that U.S. forces in all wars put together (Civil War, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, etc.) suffered 2 million casualties, while France suffered three times that many just in World War I. Can you imagine a small nation having 6 million dead and wounded in a single four-year war?

There’s been a resurgence in interest in World War I in the past 20 years. For reasons no one can fully explain, more scholars are studying it, and more people are visiting museums and cemeteries related to it. At the Menin Gate Memorial, which is located in the Flanders region of Belgium, buglers perform a Last Post ceremony at 8 p.m. every single evening to this day. Just this past month, de Schaepdrijver presented a paper at a scholarly conference on World War I, held in France.

I sat there taking notes and trying to figure out what we might do with de Schaepdrijver in the magazine. We’d need some sort of “news peg” to write about her—or, as our former senior editor, Vicki Glembocki, used to put it, a raison d’être. Maybe if de Schaepdrijver has a book coming out, that would be our excuse. The anniversary of Armistice Day would be another good news peg—except that we just missed the 90th anniversary, and I don’t think I want to wait 10 years until the 100th.

We’ll think of something.

There are certain kinds of content that I’m not especially savvy about how best to cover in the magazine. Scholarly work in history and the humanities is one of them. We don’t have a lot of experience with writing about faculty who study this stuff. But just as I was thinking this during de Schaepdrijver’s talk, she mentioned that she also studies war diaries of that era, and oh man, did my ears perk up then. Something tells me that a story based on some diary excerpts could be fascinating and compelling.

In particular, de Schaepdrijver told us about a 50-year-old woman who lost her son in World War I and documented her grief in a 1921 memoir called La Priere Sur L’Enfant Mort (Prayer for a Dead Child). It’s a very rare book today, but oddly enough, there’s a copy in the stacks at Pattee Library. The mother who wrote the memoir had a very difficult time coming to terms with her son’s death; she rejected religion, she rejected patriotism, she rejected consolation of any kind. De Schaepdrijver read to us some very moving excerpts from the book. The only one I got a chance to write down was this one: “The most sublime of causes cannot make me accept that my child is no longer.”

De Schaepdrijver ended by quoting Ecclesiates: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” If you want to understand war, she said, “the house of mourning is the place to start.”

Tina Hay, editor

Entry filed under: The Penn Stater Magazine, University Park. Tags: , , , , , .

A Snowy View Joe’s Got a Brand-New Hip

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tom Dulaney  |  November 23, 2008 at 1:10 am

    Don’t know what your schedule is like, but for a news peg re wartime diaries why not tie into winter at Valley Forge and the first “official” US soldiers?

    Historian Bruce Catton noted, in a forward to a book of letters and diary excerpts from the revolution, that modern Americans know too much about the war of independence. The people, he noted, have become unreal cardboard characters.

    I’m knee deep in writing and research of an historical fiction novel set in 1777 in Chester Co. PA. The profound emotions and stresses on the people of those days cannot be understated. That year, they had to choose–King or new country. Choose the losing team and you lose everything–land, home, perhaps life. Rebels and Tories of the country were persecuting each other rigorously in 1777.

    A specific: Rev. William Currie, pastor of the Anglican St. Peters in the Valley church, was removed from his pulpit after 39 years of service to his flock. Reason: He would not renounce the oath to the king, taken–and required for–ordination into the church. At 68, he was cut loose to hang about, ministering to the flock in all ways but from the pulpit, and died penniless and sad.

    He probably presided over an unusual burial at the church. The day after the Paoli Massacre, just a few miles from the church, British soldiers arrived at his church. Declaring the Anglican property “English” soil, they buried two British soliders–one an officer–and three or more Americans. The Americans were buried there in hopes to hide the presence of the British dead, for fear the Americans would desecrate the grave.

    The Paoli Massacre featured a night stealth attack by the British, with rifles disabled by their officers, forcing them to bayonet the Americans. This was considered a war crime at the time.

    Since I’ve blown my intent to be brief, I’ll add this. The British and American graves at St. Peters are no longer in hiding. See photos at the following like for the images of the US Flag and Union Jack flying over the former enemies now resting in peace.


  • 2. A Trip to Oberammergau «  |  April 6, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    […] history and religious studies department, Sophie de Schaepdrijver and Ronnie Hsia. (I heard Sophie speak at one of our Huddle with the Faculty programs a year or so ago and was fascinated by her research […]

  • 3. Nancy Fowler  |  July 4, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Dick and I are looking forward to the trip. We are going to feel like the senior citizens, being the oldest. Nancy

  • 4. Dennis and Carol Paoletti  |  July 5, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    We’re packing for our trip to Paris, Oberammegau and cities in between.
    Carol has done a very thorough job as usual preparing for this trip. I could write a book on pre-trip preparation based on her process.
    Right now her biggest concern is whether or not th hotels in Wuezburg and Strasburg have hairdryers!
    We will be flying fom San Francisco to Washington Dc and staying overnight with my first roommate at PSU (in the newly completed East Halls ’62) Tony Gallo and his wife Marsha.
    We will arrive in Paris on our 45th wedding anniversary and plan to have dinner at the Eiffel Tower. How cool is that?

  • […] World War I. For the cover story of our July-August 2014 issue, I talked to Penn State historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver, who has spent much of her career studying the war—its origins, its effects on civilian life, and […]

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