AT 11:00am on 11 November 1918, an armistice took effect which effectively ended World War I – or “The Great War” as it was then known. The world had never seen carnage on such an immense, global scale. So great were the number of the dead that Europeans basically abandoned the ancient traditions of open mourning, of donning black and retiring from society for a term, because virtually every family had lost someone, and so much ritual mourning could not be sustained, neither emotionally nor economically.
Too, the world had never seen valor on such a scale; a mere parade would not do to honor the people who had served in “The War To End All Wars.” And so throughout the world, a day of remembrance was instituted. In the United States it was originally called Armistice Day. But the hopeful epithet, “The War To End All Wars,” has proven too hopeful, and as we well know, many, many wars followed, including the far vaster enormity of World War II. In the wake of that conflict and others, the United States renamed the holiday “Veterans Day,” to include ALL who have served.
While we do rightly deplore war, it is nevertheless still a human reality, and I am deeply grateful to those who have served in the military and uniformed services. For all that some conflicts may stir political and social upheaval, and for all that some conflicts may seem unwise, nevertheless, those who serve do so for all of us, and they do also merit our gratitude. We in America have what we have today because our forebears not only wrote about freedom: they fought for it.
Flower Mound, Texas
If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.
— Otto Von Bismarck, 1890
Guns of August, Barbara W. Tuchman; Ballentine Books, 1994 ed.: ISBN: 034538623X
Tuchman’s history of the start of World War I was first published in 1962. It was re-issued in 1994 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the start of that War. This book has been called “the best history book ever written.” Masterfully researched and documented, it is as scholarly as any such work need be, yet it retains a readability — and excitement — that makes it as entertaining as any fictional thriller. Even after the passage of 50 years, this book remains essential reading for those who wish to learn about World War I.
The First World War, John Keegan; Vintage, 2000: ISBN: 0375700455
I am of the opinion that anything by Keegan is worth reading (I’ve not been wrong yet, to my way of thinking.) This is a highly readable and complete account of World War I from start to finish. Perhaps the best one-volume coverage of that war we have.
In 2004, on the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I, there was a remarkable amount of publishing activity. All the following are good, but these are not aimed at the casual reader.
Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?, David Fromkin; Knopf, 2004: ISBN: 0375411569
In this minutely researched volume, Fromkin answers his title question. The result is the well-known tragedy of a war that many wanted, but from which none saw the ultimate outcome. I must confess that though this book was well-regarded in the review I read in August 2004, I find it fairly tedious in its presentation. Scholarly, to be sure. But not an entertaining read.
Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy, David Stevenson; Basic Books, 2004: ISBN: 0465081843
This one-volume history of World War I is complete and as scholarly as can be, but at times the reading feels a bit too much like slogging along with those foot soldiers of the era, knee-deep in mud and growing ever wearier. Still, it is worth the effort, because Stevenson offers some fresh insights which offer a new perspective on the well-known truisms about World War I.
The First World War, Hew Strachan; Viking Adult, 2004: ISBN: 0670032956
Strachan’s one-volume distillation of his unfinished trilogy on World War I, this effort has many of the same virtues and limitations that I identify in Stevenson’s book: it is not “popular history” (whatever that might really be) and so it is not light reading. But it is likewise worth the effort.
The First World War: To Arms, Hew Strachan; Oxford University Press, 2003 ed.: ISBN: 0199261911
This is the first volume of a yet-to-be-completed trilogy about World War I. Strachan is a foremost authority on that war, and this book is a definitive account of the build-up to World War I. It is, however, so thorough and so comprehensive that it can be both daunting and — at times — almost tedious.