COOKEVILLE – One hundred years ago, the world was a different place. Deep in the battles of World War I, society and history were being shaped and Tennesseans had a role to play in both.
To commemorate and honor the contributions of Tennesseans to WWI, the state formed the Tennessee Great War Commission, naming Tennessee Tech University professor of history Michael Birdwell as the commission’s chair.
Birdwell has studied WWI and famed WWI hero Sgt. Alvin C. York for more than a quarter of a century. He designed the commission’s logo, which feature’s the state’s signature Tri-Star at the center of a red poppy flower.
“You can’t go to a village in Europe and not see a WWI memorial,” Birdwell said. “It was so devastating. In England, for example, 3,500 people were killed or wounded a day. It’s horrific. I have been studying it a long time, and it is absolutely fascinating. It is the most literary war in history. The art, the music and the literature that comes out of it shaped the entire 20th century. It is still with us, very much.”
Birdwell and the commission have been working closely with the Tennessee Department of Tourism, Tennessee State Parks and state Veterans Services since 2015, hosting events across the state to highlight the lives and experiences of Tennesseans during the war.
The Over There, Over Here digitization project at these events has allowed for the collection of new documents and photos that are helping historians learn even more about WWI.
“People bring in artifacts, they bring in documents, we scan them right there, get the information and then they get to go home with them,” Birdwell explained. “It becomes part of the public record.”
The digitization project has been especially effective at getting people interested on the history of the war.
“Often, people come in not even knowing what they have and we are able to take a look and give them new information about these items that they have had passed through their families for generations,” Birdwell said. “It is the right time to be doing this. Just the amount of material that is readily available now is amazing.”
Funding for the commission’s work has come almost entirely from private contributions of individuals interested in the state’s role in the war.
“There is a sense of pride in Tennessee and wanting to participate in this 100th anniversary event, that’s one thing that is motivating people’s support,” Birdwell said.
November 1-3, Tennessee Tech will be the host location for a WWI symposium at the Backdoor Playhouse including scholarly presentations, a period-rules football game, vintage vehicle show and series of living history events. An exhibit by university archives is planned, as well as an exhibit at the Cookeville History Museum.
Along with some of the key Tennesseans in WWI, the public will have a chance to learn more about how cultural impacts of the war continue into today. Things like daily bathing, T-shirts and women wearing their hair short all started during the war time.
“There are so many things we take for granted today that go back to the war,” Birdwell said. “It affected culture, language, geopolitics, art, literature, music. It has seeped into every nook and cranny of the world. People should know more about it.”
The Great War Commission’s work continues through 2019. For more information about upcoming events, visit https://tnsos.net/TSLA/GWC/.