World War I? Who cares about World War I? Isn’t that the war with all the trenches, mud, impossible-to-pronounce names, spiked helmets, and those funny looking hat-helmets worn by the Allies? Yep. That’s the one. This link describes the 10 bloodiest battles.
It seems that a lot of people don’t know too much about the First One. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know an excellent World War I scholar at the University of Virginia, Edward Lengel (author of To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918). He takes groups to France to visit some of the old WWI battlefields on the Western Front. He notes how view tourists are interested in visiting the cemeteries, the memorials, and the battlefields where titanic battles were fought. While the World War II sites are crawling with tourists, the World War I sites are quiet, grown-over, and largely neglected and forgotten.
I think that World War I is fascinating, engrossing. I cannot read enough books on the Great War. The old nineteenth century high European culture died a violent death between 1914-1918. The political order that had defined Europe for centuries went away never to return as a result of the war. The futility of the many of the battles, the ineptitude of many generals, the cheap cost of life, the terrifying conditions–all these aspects of World War I are haunting to me.
I recommend Lengel’s book very highly. The Meuse-Argonne was the first offensive in which Americans took an independent and active systematic role. When one considers what those brave soldiers were up against, it is truly amazing anyone returned to tell the tale.
John Keegan’s The First World War is an excellent treatment of World War I. The first sentence of the book states that World War I was “a tragic and unnecessary” war. From there, Keegan presents a chronological narrative of the course of the war, shifting back and forth from the war in the west, the east, the seas, the Dardanelles, and other places in the world where fighting took place. It’s a great book if you are starting from the ground floor and mainly interested in the military history of the 1914-1918 war.
Of course, A. J. P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History
is one of the classic general narratives of the war, with excellent pictures, illustrations, and maps. It was the first book I ever read on World War I (read it in 8th grade), and it’s another great book to gain a general understanding of the war’s unfolding.
Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a fast paced and well written treatment of the events that brought the war about, as well as a narrative of the opening battles and movements of the huge armies that defined the war. Tuchman gives the reader a firm grasp on why the war began, and how the war took on the character that it did in the fall of 1914.
Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought goes back even further in time, tracing the background causes of World War I as far back as the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. Nobody can tell biographic stories like Massie, and he does a masterful job narrating the fateful decisions, intrigues, and complicated relationships between the policy makers of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Finally, Winston Churchill has a very descriptive and thorough history of the war entitled The World Crisis. His is a 5 volume work (Churchill is not famous for brevity) written from his unique vantage point as First Lord of the Admiralty during the war, and the primary visionary and architect of the Dardanelles campaign of 1915.
Many Americans understand much more about World War II than about World War I. Of course, the Second war was, in so many ways, a continuation of what was begun in the First war. Study the First war to gain an understanding of the course of the twentieth century, and also an understanding of Western relations with Middle Eastern countries. Study it also to discover the profound devotion of the soldiers to their nations and most of all, to each other. You’ll find it exceedingly useful.