With the 100th anniversary of what was then called The Great War (no one thought we could possibly do it again, but we sure showed them…), it’s a good time to review what led us there, as well as how terrible the war was. Here are a few books to get you started. Share other books on World War One in the comments.
1. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Written from the perspective of a German soldier in the last year of the war, it has been described as one of the best depictions of trench warfare. I’ll be honest: it was somber and depressing and beautiful and a powerful argument for ending all wars. Unfortunately, we didn’t learn our lesson, or perhaps we learned the wrong lessons…or perhaps the war wasn’t over. It just went on hiatus until 1937. It’s a must-read.
2. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. I love this nonfiction account of the run-up to, and the first month of, World War 1. Friends who have picked it up occasionally complain that there are just too many characters, and so they dropped it. You know what? They’re not wrong–there are a ton of names. But that’s part of the point. International affairs are complicated, and it was the complications–as well as poor communication, entrenched military plans, and so much more–that led to the war. The war was terrible, but Tuchman’s telling of it is masterful. One of the things I like about Tuchman is that she is NOT as a historian, and she never presumed to be one. She considered herself a writer, and her goal was to tell the story. Indeed, the writing is beautiful. Check out the opening paragraph, one of the most beautiful I’ve read in a work of non-fiction:
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
And that’s just on the first page.
4. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen. No one makes nonfiction read like a novel quite like Larsen. It’s a thriller that I couldn’t put down. Why read it? While the sinking of the Lusitania didn’t push America into the war, it later became part of the casus belli when the time came. Larsen highlights the disconnection of Woodrow Wilson, who was more concerned about his budding romance than rapidly disintegrating Europe, as well as the tragic loss of life even after the ship went down. This is an accessible read to almost anyone. (My earlier review here.)
5. The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara Tuchman. While not as good as The Guns of August, the story of the telegram that played such a big part in bringing America into the war is a rarely told one. Involving German secret agents, Japanese intrigue to buy a port in the western hemisphere for their fleet, and British subterfuge to protect their espionage efforts, it has all the makings of a really good thriller…except for Tom Cruise. Tuchman tells it well; I’d read almost anything she wrote.