American author Edith Wharton, shown here with French soldiers and friend Walter Berry, was a correspondent for Scribner's Magazine during World War I.
Credit: Image courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Dazed and slowly moving—men and women with sordid bundles on their backs, shuffling along hesitatingly in their tattered shoes, children dragging at their hands and tired-out babies pressed against their shoulders: the great Army of the Refugees. Their faces are unmistakable and unforgettable…The look in their eyes is part of the look of Paris.
Fighting France, From Dunkerque to Belfort (1915)
In this lesson, students will learn how the field of war correspondence has evolved. Through reading chapters of Edith Wharton's book, Fighting France, From Dunkerque to Belfort, they will explore an American correspondent's experiences during World War I. Students will then create and present their own correspondence report.
At the end of this lesson, students will be able to
In 1915, as World War I gained momentum, America maintained its neutrality. Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson declared war and sent troops and aid to Allies overseas. Correspondents in Europe kept Americans apprised of events that impacted the future of the nation.
American author Edith Wharton settled in France in 1913. Her involvement in World War I began the following year, when she founded the American Hostels for Refugees to provide meals, clothing, and medical services to more than 10,000 French and Belgian refugees. She also founded the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee to care for children displaced from bombarded towns. For her work, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor.
In 1915, Edith Wharton became a war correspondent, visiting troops on the front lines and reporting back to America about her perceptions of wartime France. Her articles, written over almost a year of travel, were published in Scribner's Magazine. She later published her wartime reports in the book, Fighting France, From Dunkerque to Belfort.
Traveling to Argonne and Verdun; through Lorraine and the Vosges; to Ypres, Poperinghe, and Cassel; and to Alsace, Wharton obtained permission from the French government to tour the Western Front and interview soldiers. She "scooped" war correspondent Norman Hapgood to visit the front-line trenches in Lorraine and the Vosges.1
Edith Wharton wrote direct observations from the front lines. Yet communication delays made immediate transmission of her articles impossible. It took approximately a week for her to write each article. She cabled her editor at Scribner's Magazine when she completed a piece. She then mailed the article to Scribner's.
Teaming with popular artists and writers, including John Singer Sargent, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad, Wharton compiled The Book of the Homeless, a collection of poems, prose, art, and music. Proceeds from the sale of the book supported Wharton's wartime charities.
1 Alan Price, The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton and the First World War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996): 40, 45, 56.
Before class, ask students to read The War Correspondent, an essay by Harold Evans on the Newseum's War Stories website. In class, ask students to discuss how the role of the war correspondent has evolved, citing examples from the essay.
Evans notes, "The birth and maturation of the unarmed professional war correspondent had four midwives: Democracy. Time. Scale. Speed." Ask students to consider how greater access to the front lines and communication improvements enhanced public knowledge of wartime events.
Point students to the Primary Documents section of the First World War website and the Great War Primary Documents Archive. After students have reviewed some of the documents, ask them to explain how information was transmitted during World War I.
Evans reports that, in some views, "reporting the war was about the only classic male endeavor…that provided physical danger and personal risk without public disapproval." Ask students if they agree or disagree with this statement, and to explain their reasoning.
A number of women writers covered World War I in both fiction and nonfiction accounts. Point students to the list of Women Writers and World War I on the First World War website for details. Students may wish to research these resources outside of class and report on their findings.
Ask students to read chapters of Edith Wharton's book, Fighting France, From Dunkerque to Belfort, available online.
Assemble students into six small groups. Assign each group a chapter from Wharton's Fighting France, as follows:
Distribute copies of the student worksheet, Edith Wharton: War Correspondent. Ask students to read their assigned chapter in class or as homework and complete the handout questions. If time permits, initiate a class discussion about the questions.
Ask students to pay attention to Wharton's use of journalistic techniques as they read each chapter. What events does Wharton consider noteworthy? Does she present information from the point of view of an impartial observer or an emotionally engaged participant? How might the French government, which granted Wharton access to people and locations, have influenced the topics in Wharton's articles? You may wish to select quotes from Wharton's book and ask students to discuss those quotes in class.
To put into perspective the places Wharton visited, point students to the PBS website, The Great War and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century. This site features an interactive Maps and Battles page. Students can read about the battles of Verdun and Ypres and see a map of the Western Front, which shows some of the locations Wharton visited during World War I.
If time permits, ask students to report on an event and prepare a correspondence report. They may transmit their report through a video presentation, an audio presentation, or an oral report.
Students may wish to attend a sports event, a living history event, or a historic reenactment to recapture a battle scene. If needed, students may request and obtain permission from a sponsor in order to cover the event.
Ask students to consider these questions as they prepare their correspondence report:
Use the Assessment Rubric PDF to gauge your students' learning.
2 class periods