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.
I've read one of the other books in the Very Short Introduction series (The Tudors) and was quite impressed so I would like to try this one. There are lots of gaps in my knowledge of the First World War so I'm sure I would learn a lot from this book too!ReplyDelete
Helen, I hadn't realized there is a series. I would definitely read more of these! I've also forgotten a lot of what I once learned about the Tudors, and since becoming Lymond-obsessed I've meant to read more.ReplyDelete
I always think it must be much, much harder to write a really good SHORT overview of a complicated subject, than a massive tome on the same subject. Big ups to Michael Howard for managing it -- I'll have to look this one up!ReplyDelete
I only know the very basics about this war and would like to know more as it does influence so many of my favorite writers and books. Just looked to see - my library does have it thank goodness.ReplyDelete
I did a WWI themed display at my library back in the summer and hardly any of the books were taken. It made me feel that this war is so very far away for most Americans.
Jenny, that is an excellent point! It's concise but comprehensive, which is a tricky balance.ReplyDelete
Anbolyn, I think so much attention has been given to World War II, in part because it's still present to us in the veterans, and in people's memories, and of course the impact of the Holocaust. And then the first war does seem both more complicated and less interesting (all those horrible years of trench warfare).
This sounds like a good synopsis of WWI. I did a lot of reading over the summer of books that dealt with the war or that were published in 1914. Wish I'd known about this book then. :) Hopefully my library also has a copy. Thanks for the review!ReplyDelete
Lark, I've read so much about World War II, and so little about the Great War - I feel like I have a lot of catching up to do! I will check your blog for recommendations :)ReplyDelete
I'm so pleased you mentioned 'Folly' as it is a King that rarely seems to get a mention amid all the Mary Russells. Isn't it a great book? Shattering and moving and terrifying and hopeful all at once. I want to re-read it now.ReplyDelete
Bellona Club is one of my favourite Wimseys because of the melancholy post-war atmosphere. DLS is one of the few mystery writers I can reread because her books are so good on what it was like to live in the 20s & 30s.ReplyDelete
vicki, I've recommended Folly to so many people. I really do think it's her best book. Now I want to re-read it too :)ReplyDelete
lyn, with DLS I am definitely (re)reading more for the characters than the mystery plot. I know you've read a lot about World War I, I've gotten some good suggestions from your blog.