A well-conceived and lucidly written survey of the 20th century’s first great bloodletting, with close attention to little-known episodes in and preceding the conflict.
The First World War was preeminently a conflict between England and Germany over control of the sea, and consequently of European trade—a clash of Weltpolitik and Empire, as it were. Germany, writes Strachan (History/Oxford Univ.; World War I, 1999), challenged the “status quo in three ways: colonial, naval, and economic”; but that challenge does not translate to responsibility for the outbreak of the war, which in any event involved many other nations, many rivalries and grudges, and many little martial sparks that added up to one big conflagration. (For a time, Strachan observes, Austro-Hungarians hoped that the fire could be contained in a decisive Third Balkan War, meant to settle Serbia’s hash once and for all.) Strachan notes that although the war was global, with theaters in Asia and Africa, our conception and images of it center on Europe—and even then only on the bloody trenches that cut across the continent. He also remarks that the standard histories forget the “war’s other participants,” apart from the soldiers: namely, “diplomats and sailors, politicians and laborers, women and children.” Even in places where the war hit hardest—oddly, England suffered more losses in the First than the Second World War—it’s in danger of being lost to memory, and Strachan’s overview brings into sharp focus the proximate causes and critical moments of the conflict, from the well-known (Jutland, the Somme) to the comparatively little studied (the abortive English invasion of German-held Cameroon, the savage campaigns in the Alps). The war ended with an astonishing toll: more than 800,000 German soldiers in the spring of 1918 alone, followed by the deaths of many more due not to Allied bullets but to the arrival of the Spanish flu that summer.
Heavily illustrated with maps and period photographs: the best single-volume treatment of the conflict in recent years.