Issue 13 - Art and Music

We often think of the impact of World War I in terms of destruction - the millions of soldier and civilian casualties, the devastation wrought by mortars and bullets, the cities reduced to rubble, the upheaval of governments and countries - but the war left an equal impact on creativity through the arts.

Art and music served as outlets to mankind's expression of war and suffering, generating and popularizing modern movements: The rise of Dadaism, Jazz and the avant-garde, the decline of Realism and sentimentality.

In this issue of Understanding the Great War, we look at WWI through the lens of the arts as it was revolutionized by the conflict, a conflict that continues to inspire and horrify, leaving its mark even today.
"People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people's powers of resistance."

Otto Dix, German painter and printmaker, as quoted in the book Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War by Glenn Watkins.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent exhibition, World War I and the Visual Arts, showcased the variety of artistic responses during the war. While the exhibition closed January 2018, the Met's website still hosts a variety of educational materials related to the exhibition including object images, recorded lectures, articles and podcasts. View on

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Online article, video and images

Dadaism, an avant-garde artistic movement, developed as a reaction to the horrors of the Great War and by extension the culture and society that lead to such violence. Dadaists did not share a particular art style, but instead were united in their desire to move away from reason to rejoice in the unreasonable. The MoMA Learning website created by The Museum of Modern Art features more information about Dada and World War I, as well as activities and question for students. View on

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online article and images

"The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust."

Tristan Tzara, Romanian-born poet, performance artist and one of the founders of the Dada movement.

Want to learn more about Dada? This lecture on YouTube by Jan Schall, formerly of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, goes into further detail on Dada and its ties to WWI. 

The Panthéon de la Guerre was originally a massive circular panorama described as the largest oil painting in the world, at 45 feet tall with a circumference of 402 feet. Created by French artists during the course of the war, it depicted thousands of prominent wartime figures from all Allied nations and was exhibited throughout the world. As WWI faded into memory, so did the painting, until it was donated to the National WWI Museum and Memorial [then known as the Liberty Memorial Museum] in the 1950s in a dilapidated state. Watch this video to learn more about the history of the Panthéon de la Guerre. Watch on YouTube

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Digital video, 8-minutes.

Camouflage normally is meant to cover or hide something from view. Dazzle camouflage, painted on ships, did the exact opposite. This type of camouflage used contrasting colors and geometric shapes to make it more difficult for enemies to determine a ship's speed, distance and direction of travel. Great Britain's 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions sponsored the creation of dazzle ships by modern artists for the centenary of the war. See these creations, read about the history of Dazzle painting and find more resources on their website. View online

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Online website with articles, images and app.

The American Expeditionary Forces helped popularize jazz music. Military bands, specifically African-American bands like Lt. James Reese Europe's 369th Regimental Band, played jazz music for soldiers and French citizens.

Learn more about Lt. Europe and Jazz during WWI, with this blog from the Library of Congress.
"Who would think that little U.S.A. would ever give to the world a rhythm and melodies that, in the midst of such universal sorrow, would cause all students of music to yearn to learn how to play it? Such is the case, because every musician we meet - and they all seem to be masters of their instruments - are always asking the boys to teach them how to play ragtime. I sometimes think if the Kaiser ever heard a good syncopated melody he would not take himself so seriously."

Noble Sissle, singer and composer, from the 1942 manuscript "Memoirs of 'Jim' Europe."

Music played an important role during World War I, providing hours of entertainment to soldiers as well as citizens on the home front. One of the most popular British songs during this time was Pack Up Your Troubles. This upbeat song boosted morale and encouraged everyone to "smile, smile, smile." Conductor and Singer Gareth Malone and the BBC explore the popularity of Pack Up Your Troubles in this short article with videos on BBC iWonder. View on

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Online article with digital video.

Explore more music from the WWI-era with this collection of period sheet music from the National WWI Museum and Memorial. 

And from our previous newsletter issue on Propaganda, Dr. Kristin Griffeath's essay on American music is a great resource for those in high school or above.

Many contemporary musicians have reflected on the impact of World War I in their music. We have put together a Spotify playlist of songs from the last few decades. 

This eclectic mix, from Metallica to Paul McCartney, includes a wide range of musical styles and content. The subject matter of some songs may not be suitable for younger listeners, so please review before sharing with students.

In this maker activity created by Virginia 4-H, young students learn about music and military bands during World War I. Students will also make their own musical instrument! Download the following files to use this lesson plan: Army Bands Handout, Science of Music Handout and Making Music Handout.

Recommended Grade Levels: Elementary School
Format: Lesson plan (PDF files)

Maurice Marechal was a French soldier who served throughout the entire war and fought in the Battle of Verdun. While that was a remarkable feat alone, he also was a cellist who played for the likes of Ferdinand Foch and Joseph Joffre, using a cello made from German ammunitions boxes and an oak door. Read this article from France's Mission Centenaire 14-18 about this unique musician.
Read online

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online article

The United States World War One Centennial Commission and the National WWI Museum and Memorial are dedicated to educating the public about the causes, events, and consequences of the conflict and we encourage the use of these resources to better understand the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.

Partners on this project include:

The Pritzker Military Museum and Library is a founding sponsor of the United States World War One Centennial Commission.