Martin D. Gilbert's The First World War is a beautiful, but dense book. It will take perseverance and time to get through. But those two qualities are not unattainable by modern readers, and this book is well worth the effort it takes.
In fact, I think this book is essential.
Martin D. Gilbert takes the sprawling, majestic history of 1914-1919 and turns it into a rich and comprehensive history. Dealing with the politics of the various governments, the causes of the war, the causes of the prolongation of the war, and a poignant look at life in the trenches, his view captures the most hard-headed analysis and compassionate humanity I've read so far in a history book. He covers the major battles on all the fronts: France, Russia, and Italy--as well as the building of the armies, and the various revolts among the populaces. He even touches on the Irish draft once in a while. His honesty and artistry give an educational look at a war so little known, that shaped the culture of our modern society.
I didn't realize how many times the West lost to Germany. That really surprised me. From beginning to end, Germany was stronger, better, more strategic. Throughout the book I knew the end result, but I was constantly biting my nails, despairing over poor battle tactics, waiting for it all to turn around. In the end, it's not about the strongest. Just about who God wants to win. I still can't quite pinpoint how the tables all turned. The Americans helped, certainly, but they didn't help as much as I thought they did. In fact, once the Americans showed up, their cocky, crude swearing showed just how uncivilized we are compared to our European cousins. As one reviewer said on Amazon, Also, if you are American (like me), you'll wonder if we did anything in the war besides blunder around and die of Spanish Flu.
Another thing that surprised me was the amount of tactical errors on the part of the Allies. France was all right as far as fighting went, but England had a lot of errors in their battle plans that cost us good men and good territory throughout the war. Especially on Gallipoli in the Mesopotamian Front. Most of those errors were due to a refusal to adapt and change on the battlefield. This book is a monument to many things; one of them to what happens when grey-headed commanders insist on unwise offensives, no matter the cause. (I know, I know. It's complicated. And a twenty-year-old homeschool graduate still wet behind the ears has no right to criticize.)
Winston Churchill cut a fine figure in Gilbert's pages. Younger than a lot of his peers, he was the voice of common sense and reason that was always squelched and sent back to the battlefield. "This will be disastrous." "This will needlessly sacrifice good lives."--such sane and sensible remarks had no bearing in the Cabinet discussions. When he resigned in frustration from the government, and went off to the front, they lost one of the best voices they had for planning the war. I'm kind of surprised he wanted to come back. With the way he was treated, Britain really didn't deserve his help in World War Two.
Another factor Gilbert highlighted was the toll the war took on soldiers. Lots of Victoria crosses were given out. Many acts of bravery. But this was the biggest war England had known for years--or at all--and war is no little thing. Facing 15,000 shells of mustard gas a morning compounded the horrors. Men lost their eyesight--saw comrades die grisly deaths (Gilbert doesn't spare the details) and sometimes came back from the battlefield after having lost over 10,000 of their comrades in a single day. I don't think we have any idea how to begin to imagine death on that scale. Lots of soldiers struggled with depression. Many of them wrote poetry, expressing the depth of the hell they were enduring--few of poems that Gilbert included mentioned thoughts of home. They were all focused on the battlefield. Letters had a sense of desperation. Men were shot for deserting. The Russians gave up first, slaughtered and taking prisoner by the millions. Pacifists on all the home fronts fought against the war and went to prison for refusing to enlist. They urged the German and British governments to make peace. If only it were that simple. The few personal stories Gilbert chose to highlight put faces to the anonymous casualties, and made it all the more real.
Gilbert's maps in the back of the book are essential to follow for any kind of picture of what's going on. When you're in the thick of the pages, you have no idea where things are geographically. (Well, I didn't. Judge me not.) His maps are set up chronologically throughout the war, and have lots of clear labels and battle line markings. I strongly urge the reader to make use of them.
Why should you read this book? On an intellectual level, it's a great one-time book to give you an idea of what we're actually remembering in the 2014-2017 centennial. But more than that, it's a tribute to the human toll our great-great grandfathers offered willingly so that we could be free. And even more than that, it's a sobering look at the fact that God draws the boundaries and battle lines of our world. But for him, America might not be here today.