Book Bleg: The First World War

Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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35 Responses

  1. Not a book, but a good companion.

    The blue of the French uniforms astounds me. Clearly camoflage was not yet invented.Report

  2. Dan says:

    Keegan’s ‘The First World War’ is good starting point for a solid, overall view of the war.Report

    • Lev in reply to Dan says:

      I agree. Actually, Keegan is sort of a one-stop shop for military history of any sort. His WWI book is really good, though, and it consciously tries to look at action on all the fronts aside from just the Western–there’s some great stuff on Gallipoli, the Russian front, and even the Middle East and African fronts, plus naval combat as well. He also did a great job of explaining the politics of the Russian Revolution and the German political fight after the War. And there’s some masterly analysis and argumentation as well.

      For my money, though, his Churchill biography can’t be beat. Most biographers would have padded out the book to 1000+ pages, but Keegan gets the job done in less than 200, while still providing a full picture of the man, his character and worldview and, of course, his accomplishments (and failures). I used to read a lot of historical bios but often found them ridiculously padded out–Black’s book on FDR being something of an exception, as a long book that justified its length. Keegan gives you everything you need as quickly as possible. If only more historical writers followed his lead.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to Lev says:

        Thanks to both of you! I’m kicking myself now for not getting Keegan’s book. I had it in my hand, and then went with Gilbert’s on the grounds that Gilbert’s was longer and thus likely to be more comprehensive. Stupid me!Report

    • I concur on Keegan. Man did we have to read a lot of him in college. He’s good though.Report

  3. Will Wilson says:

    “Storm of Steel”, by Ernst Junger. A first-hand account of life in the trenches that gives you a very good insight into why what happened in Germany after 1918 happened.Report

  4. greginak says:

    I agree WW1 is an interesting and important subject. All the crowing about how the West was so cowardly for appeasing the German’s seemed exceptionally clueless since the horrors of WW 1 were in the living memory of so many in Britain and France. That doesn’t mean it is wrong to criticize appeasement, but just that WW1 was just that much of a nightmare.

    I don’t have any great books in mind on the subjects you are asking about but :

    By Joseph Persico is a great book. He focuses on the last day of the war but weaves in many stories from throughout the war to show how they got there.

    The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell is a classic about how the war changed society and culture.

    Barbara Tuchman has some good books on the beginning of the war.

    When I get home tonight I can find a couple books more on the topics you are asking about.Report

    • Mark Thompson in reply to greginak says:

      Thanks, Greg! I’m getting the feeling I should have posted this bleg two weeks ago.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to greginak says:

      Greg, I’m looking at the google books preview of the Fussel. It looks like an amazing read, directly in the vein of a longstanding interest of mine. Thanks for the tip.

      Btw, not sure if all editions will have it, but the picture of the soldier on the front — thinking things over it would appear, or just staring into space — is as haunting as it is evocative of the book’s title and subject, no?Report

  5. Nob Akimoto says:

    I think to truly “understand” World War I, you need to actually look at the history of Europe between the Congress of Vienna and the actual outbreak of the war in depth to see how the conditions came to be that made a great power conflict possible.

    A.J.P. Taylor’s Struggle of Mastery of Europe is probably the best comprehensive look at the period before and during the First World War, and his English History 1914 – 1915, is also a nice contribution.Report

  6. Will Wilson says:

    I agree with Nob. Taylor’s biography of Bismarck is also excellent.Report

  7. Will says:

    A bit cliche, but “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves and “All Quiet on the Western Front” from Remarque are both excellent first-hand accounts of the war.

    Niall Ferguson’s “The Pity of War” is a fascinating revisionist take.

    In addition to his history of the First World War, Keegan’s “The Face of Battle” has a compelling chapter on the Somme.

    “Paris, 1919” is an excellent account of the Versailles Treaty.Report

  8. E.D. Kain says:

    I think a lot of pre-WWI history is in order, as well (to echo Nob) even going back to the Crimean war. The various alliances and treaties and tensions that built up to the war itself are extraordinarily complex and absurd.Report

    • greginak in reply to E.D. Kain says:

      Isn’t that just the way history sucks you in. You start interested in one event or period and then find you have to learn about what came before it and then before that. I came about my interest in ww1 from reading about ww2. There is only so much you can understand about ww2 without understanding the interwar period and ww1.Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

        So true. That’s a huge flaw in contemporary politics as well – especially on certain issues like the ME conflicts (and the Israel/Palestine conflict in particular). People operate, somehow, with no historical context or basis for their arguments – which, of course, leads to rather vapid and one-sided conclusions….Report

        • Rob in CT in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          I remember when a friend of mine (non-history major) asked me to explain WWII to her. As in all of it, b/c she couldn’t have told you when it started, who fought in it, etc. Nada.

          I thought about it for a few minutes, and then started with WWI. I think I bored her terribly, and probably overwhelmed her with info, but frankly you cannot teach WWII without at least sketching WWI.

          And so on and so forth.Report

  9. Travis says:

    I wholeheartedly recommend “Dreadnought” and “Castles of Steel,” Robert K. Massie’s pair of books on World War One naval history.

    “Dreadnought” focuses on the massive naval arms race between Britain and Germany that preceded WW1, and documents the quantum leaps in naval technology which rendered ships obsolete even as they were being launched. He extensively documents Kaiser William II’s Anglophilia, and argues that the Kaiser’s desire for Germany to be more like Britain (large navy, colonial empire) made conflict between the two nations almost inevitable. Britain was committed to maintaining naval supremacy at a 2-to-1 margin over its largest potential adversary, and the German Navy’s expansion pushed the UK to nearly bankrupt itself in an effort to keep pace. The book ends as the war begins.

    “Castles of Steel” documents the ensuing battles at sea, from the earliest clashes in the North Sea shallows to the scuttling of the High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow. Of particular interest are the fascinating and heart-rending depictions of the suicidal battles at Coronel and the Falkland Islands, as Cradock’s obsolete British squadron is obliterated by Von Spee’s superior cruisers, before being themselves hunted down and annihilated by Sturdee’s battlecruisers. He devotes extensive pages to the lesser-known coastal and colonial naval clashes, along with the U-boat war and the futile sideshow in the Dardanelles.

    Neither are short reads – Castles of Steel runs 788 pages, not including notes – but both are well worth the effort.Report

  10. greginak says:

    I agree the Massie books are great if you want every detail. Dreadnaught is very good for helping to understand the build up to the war.Report

  11. Kyle R. Cupp says:

    I’m not sure how historically accurate it is, but I very much enjoyed Mark Helprin’s novel A Soldier of the Great War.Report

  12. HA! says:

    Death’s Men by Denis Winter is proably the best book about day to day life.Report

  13. Michael Drew says:

    The Guns of August is essential, though not directly on any of the topic you mention. For life in the trenches, I’m not sure you can do any better than All Quiet on the Western Front. Probably many histories are far more comprehensive on the varieties of soldiers’ experiences, but most history written of World War 1 does not focus on life for the soldiers. And nothing beats the being-there quality of a literary narrative of someone who was there.

    But yeah, Tuchman has the classic, gripping account of the meltdown that kicked it all off.Report

  14. greginak says:

    Tuchaman’s books are great but there has been some newer research and views since she wrote the Guns of August. If I wasn’t at work I would get the name of more recent book that has a bit of different take on how the war started. I think Tuchman took a view that it was a sort of giant misunderstanding fueled by jingoism, the thought that war was cool and the long time it took to mobilize armies. The new view puts more blame squarely on Germany for terrible diplomacy, which is accepted, but also pushing for a small war in the Balkan’s and hoping things would work out in the west.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to greginak says:

      I think your characterization is probably a little unfair to Tuchman, though she is obviously by no means authoritative or final. Ferguson puts a great deal of blame on the British.Report

  15. grumpy realist says:

    A.J.P. Taylor has also written a history of WWI. Very good, full of detail and pictures.

    (I also recommend highly his collection of essays “Europe: Grandeur and Decline”.)Report

  16. Thanks again for all these suggestions! I may have my reading list full for the next year.Report

  17. nick4340 says:

    don’t know if i’m piling in to late, but thought i’d add my two pennies/cents.

    having studied ww1 as an undergraduate, i would say that paul fussell’s book is often criticised in academic circles today. that’s not to say the book’s not worth reading, but his historical understanding of the war is quite limited, and he maybe is revealing more about his own experiences in the second world war, than his understanding of the experiences of soldiers in 1914-1918.

    more recent books on memory after ww1 are jay winter’s ‘sites of memory, sites of mourning’, modris eksteins’ ‘rites of spring’ and adrian gregory’s ‘the silence of memory’.

    excellent descriptions of the effects on the home front can be found in elizabeth blucher’s ‘an english wife in berlin’ (a contemporary account) and winter and roberts’ ‘capital cities at war’.
    also highly recommended is palmer and wallis’ ‘a war in words’, which contains first hand descriptions of home front and front line experiences from a wide range of fronts – it is particularly good on the eastern front.
    a good contemporary account of the war in the balkans and the east from an american journalist is reed’s ‘the war in eastern europe’. norman stone’s ‘the eastern front’ is an old, but good, secondary account.
    the start of the war in the balkans is well analysed in samuel williamson’s ‘austria-hungary and the origins of world war 1’.
    finally, i would definitely agree with the recommendation of junger’s ‘storm of steel’ for accounts of front line fighting. also worth looking at are audoin-rouzeau’s ‘men at war’, leonard smith’s ‘between mutiny and obedience’ and cecil and liddle’s ‘facing armageddon’ (a collection of articles on front line experiences, with material on other fronts than the west).

    sorry that was so long – very much doubt you’ll have a chance to look at all thatReport

    • Mark Thompson in reply to nick4340 says:

      Not too late!

      Actually, based on the unexpectedly large number of responses to this, I’m thinking my assumption that “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” is wrong.Report

      • My history degree was actually heavily tailored towards military history and I still don’t feel like I have a full grasp of WWI by a long shot. In some ways I think WWII is easier to understand. With WWI it seems like half the countries involved don’t even exist anymore. It can be daunting as hell to understand if you really want to understand the political as well as the military aspects.Report

  18. Nob Akimoto says:

    Obviously this is comedy and not reading, but I always thought “Blackadder Goes Forth” did a fairly good job of capturing the absurdity of the trench war from the stand point of an infantryman. The final episode in particular was amazingly good.Report

  19. Cicero says:

    A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin is invaluable; it focuses on the creation of the middle east after the WWI fall of the Ottoman empire. Brilliant, well-written, and gripping, packed with archival research.Report