What Wonder Woman got right and wrong about World War I

Contributed by
Jun 20, 2017

Wonder Woman is an action-packed adventure about a superhero doing her superhero best to stop Ares, the God of War. It's set near the end of World War I, a.k.a. The Great War, a.k.a. a four-year struggle that killed 17 million people and wounded 20 million more.

Chris DeRosa is a military historian who teaches at Monmouth University. He is also a fan. I spoke with DeRosa and asked him if he thought the film's treatment of the past was perfect.

It wasn't. But he gives it points for trying.

How historically accurate was Wonder Woman?

Chris DeRosa: The plot point that the British chiefs would not allow a raid into occupied Belgium because it might upset the Germans on the eve of the Armistice is quite backward; the Allies were striving hard to liberate Belgium at the time of the Armistice.

What was actually happening was that the Allies were set on winning the war, and the Germans succumbed to military pressure. There was no Allied sentiment for giving the German Empire breathing room to think things over.

What the filmmakers were going for, I think, is the idea that both sides were preferring peace to war, while Erich Ludendorff and Ares were the ones keeping it going.

Tell me a bit about Ludendorff and why do you think, of all the historical characters, he was chosen to be the villain?

Erich Ludendoff had been the Quartermaster General of the German army since 1916, and from that position he dominated the General Staff and was the de facto director of Germany's war effort. A general staff is sort of like the collective brain of an army.

His behavior became erratic toward the end of the war, but at least at some points he was indeed a holdout against capitulation, so the movie is accurate in that limited respect.

He survived the war (unlike his film character) and became a Nazi, so he's an attractive villain in that sense, too.

However, he did not order a deadly gas attack on a civilian village in 1918, as he does in the film. Gas affected civilians sometimes but because they were downwind from a military attack, not as a form of intentional atrocity. For that matter, Ludendorff did not assassinate other members of the German high command, either.

Were there any female scientists in the German Empire's army? Women on the battlefield? Women in any part of the war effort (besides nurses)?

I don't know about German scientists of that era who worked in the war effort. On the Allied side, women were certainly part of the Great War, not only nurses but as drivers, war workers, administrators. The Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, near my university, employed women. There were even some women who fought for the Russian army in 1917.

Steve's zippered trousers were anachronistic. What else about the film did you think wasn't quite period accurate?

"You got this." "It's not about 'deserve.'" "Cool." "I'm a good guy, they're the bad guys." The Steve Trevor character is a man well ahead of his time not only in slang and sentence structure, but in his sense that it is winning for a grown man to speak like an irreverent teen.

The English of the period isn't unrecognizable. He wouldn't have to speak in some archaic way; you would be able to understand him. Look at Downton Abbey. They managed to pull it off credibly.

If the United States had joined the Allied Powers, why was Steve Trevor working for the British and not the US?

Remember that the Americans are late-comers to the war, not arriving in Europe until its final year. I don't think it is implausible of the film to offer us an American operative attached to the British service in a liaison capacity.

Why does an American spy get a British secretary?

As part of his cover? I think we just have to roll with it.