The First World War, Michael Howard
My branch library has a small exhibit up on the First World War, and there is a cart of "suggested reading" books next to the case. Reading Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth several years ago made me realize how much I have forgotten - or never learned in the first place - about the Great War. As is my wont, I quickly bought a couple of books to remedy that: Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August and John Keegan's The First World War. As is also my wont, I added them to the TBR stacks and left them there, though I did get a few chapters into the Keegan book at some point.
When I saw this short book of 154 pages, and read in the Foreword that it is "intended simply to introduce the vast subject of the First World War to those who know little or nothing about it," I decided it would be a better start for me. However short, I knew this wouldn't just be "WWI for Dummies," since it is from the Oxford University Press, the work of Sir Michael Howard, a professor at both Oxford and Yale. And I was right. The first chapter sets out the background of "Europe in 1914," covering the major powers, their alliances and continuing conflicts. The second explains "The Coming of War." The chapters that follow are divided by year, focusing on the major campaigns and briefly touching on the home-fronts of the major powers. The last chapters cover the Armistice and the 1919 peace conference. I found the narrative generally easy to follow, helped by the excellent maps showing both the Western and Eastern fronts. The sheer number of generals and other leaders was sometimes a bit confusing, though I only had to resort to the index once or twice.There are just a few illustrations, but they are well-chosen, particularly of the devastation of the battlefields.
I learned a lot from this book, brief as it is, and I have ordered a copy for myself. It reminded me of things I had learned and forgotten, and it helped me make connections with things I already knew, from Vera Brittain and Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Helen Dore Boylston. I loved how it stretched my mind and made me think. I took as many notes on this book as I have on books three times its size. After reading it, I feel more ready to tackle those two books already on my shelves, as well as another (an unread book club choice) on the Paris peace conference. There is also a brief section on "Further Reading" to consider.
It felt appropriate to be reading this on November 11th. I was also reminded as I read of how big a part the Great War plays in books I love, starting with Peter Wimsey. I took down The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club last night, which opens on Remembrance Day, as Peter arrives for a quiet dinner hosted by Colonel Marchbanks for friends of his son, killed at Hill 60. The war shapes the story in Laurie King's Folly, in my opinion her best book, as well as the first two books of the Holmes-Russell series. And I am still discovering its place in Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Elizabeth von Arnim's books.