The First World War
Hew Strachan

First American Edition, Viking 2004
ISBN 0-670-03295-6

StrachanThis is a totally fascinating book. In only 340 pages, the author manages to capture the entire world-wide extent of the First World War: Western Front (with which we are most familiar), Eastern Front, Italian Front, Middle East, Africa and the Far East; the land battles, the naval battles; and the politics.

The author, Hew Strachan (now Sir Hew Strachan), is Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University; he is particularly well known for his work on the history of the First World War. It takes a very good academic to boil all of that detail down to only the salient points, and then a very good writer to convey only the essentials without making the book unreadable for ordinary mortals. The style is of necessity almost telegraphic, but it stills reads very well.

Likewise of necessity, the book tends to be thematic rather than chronological. Each of its ten chapters discusses a particular aspect of the war. The chapters are arranged in roughly chronological order, but the content of each chapter overlaps with the content of other chapters because specific events can be looked at in different ways.

Readers looking for an overview of the war through Canadian eyes will be disappointed; Strachan's viewpoint is indeed global. And readers who want to focus on the battlefield drama will also be disappointed. Specific battles are mentioned, but only in the context of policy being executed or in terms of their influence on policy. Vimy Ridge, for example, which is quite rightly big in Canadian eyes, is mentioned but is not distinguished from other similar victories.

This book is valuable because it illustrates that the war was indeed a global war. Canadians tend to focus on the Western Front because the events in this sector were the making of Canada as a nation. But battles on other fronts were perhaps even more apocalyptic.

But while focusing on the strategic aspects, developments on the battlefield are not completely neglected. For example, with respect to the western front, Strachan notes that, particularly in the early years, command and control difficulties contributed in large measure to the inability of either side to exploit tactical successes. And in the latter part of the war the effectiveness of artillery improved tremendously and was used in far greater concentrations in attempts to minimize casualties.

And behind all of the battlefield drama was the political drama. The book shows, for example, that the end of the war was precipitated by Germany's internal political collapse, in turn aided by, among other things, the allied naval blockade.

This book was written about ten years ago, but it came to my attention only this past summer when a ten-part television mini-series, prepared in parallel with the book, was re-broadcast on TV Ontario. The titles of the ten episodes in the TV series are the same as those of the ten chapters in the book, and one can see parallels between the content of each chapter and its corresponding episode in the TV series, but the exigencies of the video medium require that the focus/emphasis be quite different. (Apologies to those readers who do not have access to TV Ontario!)

A remarkable book; Highly recommended, especially for those readers who want a better idea of how all of the war's aspects fitted together.

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