I read The First World War by Hew Strachan mostly because it was recommended by the Army Chief of Staff. I also realized that my knowledge of WWI is woefully inept considering I have a history degree. I took a class on World War II and the US Civil War. There are dozens of movies about WWII and the Civil War. We joke about the days in which the History Channel showed only profiles of Hitler, as opposed to Ancient Aliens, as a sign of the times. Outside of of the tales of Diana, Princess of Themiscyra, I know very little about WWI. Considering that this year is the centennial of Armistice Day, the cease fire that ended the war, it seemed exceptionally appropriate to read this book this year.
Before reading this book I knew only a few things about WWI. It was “the War to End all Wars” or “the Great War”. It ended on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” I knew that the improvements to weaponry, due in large part to industrialization, led to trench warfare. I knew that it was the first use of machine guns, tanks, airplanes, chemical weapons. I knew the Maginot Line was a joke [It technically worked; the Germans went around it so it was never breached]. I knew that the Treaty of Versailles was a primary cause for WWII. That was about the extent of my knowledge, just a collections of anecdotes and sayings. This book changed that.
The first thing I noticed about this book is how thorough it is. Listening to The First World War was very much like sitting in a lecture hall and listening to a WWI scholar talk about the the war, the factors that led to it, and the impact in had. Now, something that I feel sets this book apart is that the author does a phenomenal job of including details and anecdotes of what happened in addition to the actual fighting. He discusses the economic and political implications and how they affected the average civilian farmer, for example. This is not common in books about war and really makes this book stand apart.
Another great aspect of this book was how it applied equal representation to all facets of the war. What I mean by that may be a greater reflection of my own ignorance than anything else but, this war was far more reaching, in scope, than I previous knew. Again, my own ignorance at play here, but I never really comprehended that WWI was in fact a “world” war. I only recall learning about the war in Europe. Sure, we have the eventually inclusion of the US and fighting in Turkey, which is half-Europe, but I did not realize how much more global the war reached. The most obvious example of my ignorance was all the fighting that took place in Africa. Overly simplified, it makes perfect since that there would have been fighting on the continent, most of the European powers had African colonies. What I really did not know was the contributions of the African people to the war effort. Africans fought on both sides of the war and the Germans did not surrender until two weeks after the armistice. WWI ended German colonialism though the colonies were divided among the powers to the Entente, not granted independence.
This book was not perfect and while I do enjoy the lecture type presentation, it reminds me of my favorite professor from college, at times it made it very possible to zone out. That is really the only criticism I have to this book. Had it not been due back to the library, I would have slowed down and taken the book in chunks. The First World War is not a dense book in the colloquial sense but it is information-dense. There is a lot to learn and process. It is a great book and I recommend it to anyone who likes history. One need not appreciation of military history to enjoy the First World War as the book is so well written and all-encompassing.