THE FIRST WORLD WAR by Michael Howard


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A concise, credible, lucid account of the causes, battles, politics, and consequences of the Great War.

Howard (Professor Emeritus, History/Yale and Oxford) compresses a mass of material, theory, and argument. His modest ambition, he states, is merely to introduce. But he does far more; he also engages and educates. First offering a snapshot of Europe in 1914, Howard then establishes the geopolitics and identifies the principal reasons each of the major powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia, Britain) allowed the machinery of war to rumble into motion and then roar into sanguinary life. The author explains how the battlefield was transformed by the emerging technology of warfare: improved firepower, artillery with increasing range, poison gas, automobiles, airplanes, and submarines. All the combatants believed the war would be short; when the conflict slowed in the trenches and became a war of attrition, Howard analyzes how political forces on the home fronts sought to end it. He does not focus on the war’s human cost, though occasionally he reminds us of the horror visited upon innocent civilians. Discussing refugees, he describes “the first trickle of that immense and miserable flood of uprooted humanity that was to characterize warfare for the rest of the century.” The author deals skillfully with the late, reluctant entry of the US into the conflict, occasioned by German submarine attacks on passenger and merchant vessels in a last-gasp attempt to stop the Allies’ supplies. As Howard notes, the Germans knew this would bring America into the war, but the High Command hoped the conflict would be over before that entry had much of an effect. They miscalculated: Americans flooded “over there,” and their mere presence, the author argues, animated the Allies. His final pages deal with the Versailles Treaty, whose harsh conditions would arm Adolf Hitler with much political firepower.

Demonstrates with clarity, craft, and precision that even in scholarship less can be more. (12 b&w photos; 7 maps)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-19-285362-7
Page count: 154pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2002