Book Bleg: The First World War
The First World War has always been a subject that I’ve wanted to learn about in great depth. The reasons for this primarily boil down to the fact that I think it’s impossible to understand the modern world without having a good understanding of it, combined with the fact that American history textbooks do a remarkably poor job of discussing it. So unless you took an elective on Modern European History or were a college history major, the likelihood that you know much more than that it was somehow caused by the assassination of a rock band, led to the humiliation of Germany (and eventually the rise of Hitler), and cost a lot of lives in trench warare is pretty slim. I mean, I knew that the caualty figures were staggering and that it completely redrew the political map (and was therefore exceedingly important to the creation of the modern world), but the hows, whys, and wherefores were largely out of my knowledge. Simply knowing that it led to, for instance, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire does little to explain how and why the events in that war affect the modern world.
I finally got around to reading an in-depth book on the war last week, Sir Martin Gilbert’s “The First World War: A Complete History.” It’s good and useful as an introductory book, I suppose, but I find it to be severely lacking for much beyond that. Specifically, Gilbert focuses almost single-mindedly on the British perspective of the war, particularly on the Western Front (although I hope and expect he’ll focus a bit more on the Dardanelles/Gallipoli and the Middle East as I get further in). As such, you wind up with a sort of day-to-day operational history of the war between the British and the Germans, with only passing mention of the Eastern Front, the Balkan Front, the Caucasian Front, and the French and Belgian experiences. Given that he, for instance, acknowledges that France lost more men in battle in the first five months of the war than Britain lost in all of WWII and that the fighting was even more fierce on the Eastern Front than the Western, this is a flaw that is near-unforgivable. He also seems to have an understandable but unhelpful pro-British bias that makes some of his themes a bit hard to trust – for instance, he seems to suggest that the outbreak of war was the fault of everyone but the British, who are portrayed as almost the only honest brokers for peace in the buildup to war and as having a moral obligation to enter once Belgium was invaded (which strikes me as probably true).
This isn’t to say the book is uninteresting or not worth reading. His frequent tie-ins to players from the Second World War, relying on extensive quotes from their contemporaneous correspondence, provides great context for how and why they developed into those players. In some passages, he does an excellent job in subtly pointing out the absurdities of anti-Semitism, discussing how mobs living on both sides of the front but within just a few miles of each other, each viewed “the Jews” as traitors who supported the enemy.
Anyhow, I’m looking for some suggestions of books to read that do a good job covering the following aspects of the war:
1. The effects on the homefront, particularly in countries that were the site of extended battles (France, Poland, and Belgium especially).
2. The war in the Balkans (Gilbert’s lack of discussion on this issue is particularly egregious given its role in starting the war and more importantly given its role in recent events).
3. The other fronts in general, especially the Eastern Front.
4. Life in the trenches.
Any suggestions? I expect that no one book will do a comprehensive job on all these, but maybe one will do at least an adequate job? Otherwise, I’m down with suggestions of books that are abnormally strong in just one or two of these areas.