Here’s a collection of some favorite nonfiction books about the Great War, perfect for the reader who wants a refresher, or wants to better understand this important centenary.
We’ll be over, we’re coming over
And we won’t come back till it’s over
— George M. Cohan
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One hundred years ago this month, Congress granted President Woodrow Wilson’s request to go to war. America’s commitment to neutrality ended that day, torn by the modern ravages of submarine warfare (the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat) and espionage (the Zimmerman Telegram). In a way, our collective innocence was destroyed, too, as troops marched out of isolationism into the harsh light of global conflict.
My great-grandfather was one of those. Family lore says he and a pal walked for miles from their Montana homesteads to sign up, extracting a promise from the government that their land would still be theirs when they returned. He did return, in 1919, after serving as a cook during the Battle of the Argonne Forest. Thanks to an Army snafu he didn’t get released in time to meet the boat his English war bride was boarding; surely terrified, she went on alone, somehow finding her way to the prairie to start her new life. Her new husband burned his uniform and didn’t talk about the Argonne much, to her or the generations who came later. (He continued to cook, though, as she had little skill in that department.)
World War I is a distant, out-of-focus conflict for most people, especially those with no tie to it. They might remember something from school about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie — royalty of an empire that no longer exists — or the Lusitania sinking, or a German telegram to Mexico. Women in big hats and doughboys in steel helmets. Trenches and rats. Horses and then tanks.
It was so much more. The alliances and the nation-carving that resulted continue to reverberate today. So do the mistakes, and so do the advances in military technology, in medicine and in social mores. The world shifted under the feet of the Doughboy, and the British Tommy and the French Poilu, and didn’t stop once they came home.
In a time of brittle alliances and international intrigue, not to mention anxiety about America’s role in the world, understanding what brought us to this point seems appropriate, as does recognizing the spirit of all those who didn’t come back ‘til it was over. Here’s a collection of some of my favorite nonfiction books about the Great War, perfect for the reader who wants a refresher, or wants to better understand this important centenary.
“The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914” and “The Guns of August”: Historian Barbara Tuchman turned her narrative skill to describing the “world as it was” in “Tower” and the horror that dawned over Europe in “August.” “The Proud Tower” is not a sepia-toned look at the splendid final days of the Edwardian world. It’s a fascinating collection of essays about anarchists, Socialists, American expansionists, the Dreyfus Affair — sole incidents when, taken as a whole, indicated trouble was certainly in the air and a new age was at hand.
In “Guns,” for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, she turns her attention to military history and strategy — and the blunders — of the powers at war’s onset. You won’t be halfway through it before you mutter, “Well, no wonder.”
Tuchman has been put through the wringer a bit by critics who consider these books “history lite” or as one particularly savage writer put it, merely “an assembling of picturesque details.” Take that with a shaker of salt. If you’re new to Great War scholarship, or just want to revisit noteworthy moments without getting bogged down in minutiae, Tuchman is the ticket. You’ll come away reeling from the fascinating whirl of world events that was the early 20th century and likely wondering: Why didn’t somebody teach me any of this?
“The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War”: A bit of a tear-jerker from Richard Rubin, who in 2003 aimed to find all the surviving World War I veterans and preserve their stories. He found a lot more than you’d think, and despite the greatly advanced age of his subjects, he mined a rich trove of memories about what it was like to be part of a world war. The matter-of-fact attitude of his subjects, and the “I just did what needed to be done” ethos, especially in the cases of African Americans who were denied rights and recognition, is amazing.
“Dead Wake”: Just as mist-obscured as the Doughboys is the tragedy of the Cunard liner Lusitania, sunk in May 1915 by a German U-boat patrolling off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard, 1,195 were lost; fewer than 300 bodies were ever found. Part-time Seattleite and relentless researcher Erik Larson (“The Devil in the White City,” “In the Garden of Beasts”) is one of those writers who delivers a page-turner even when the ending is well-known.
“World War I in 100 Objects”: For the armchair traveler who can’t make it to a museum, Peter Doyle’s book is a way to see actual items from WWI and learn about the people who used them. Doyle called his selection “way markers that allow us to connect directly with the events and times of this war,” and the markers range in scope from Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s car to a beat-up cap.
New this year
“Trench Talk/Trench Life” (Glitterati, coming in July) is an illustrated little volume about the gear, conversation and daily routines in wartime for soldiers of many nations, by Seattle author Fredric Winkowski; and “World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It,” an anthology edited by A. Scott Berg (“Lindbergh,” “Wilson”) is part of the fine “Library of America” series. It includes pieces by Edith Wharton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, W. E. B Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Jane Addams and Emma Goldman.