Tag Archives: World War One

Barbara Tuchman – Guns of August (1962)

51FgcC7xc8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Lauded as one of the most important works dealing with the First World War, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August takes an in depth look at at the earliest stages of WWI from the decisions made to the moment when the Franco-British offensive stopped the German advance.

Tuchman beings at the funeral of Edward VII of the UK which drew the presence of Kings from around the country including Kaiser Wilhelm the II of Germany. Through this, Tuchman introduces the key players and personalities in the lead up to the First World War before moving on to a discussion of military planning and finally the outbreak. The bulk of the book, (12 chapters) is a detailed account of specific military campaigns and battles.

I love reading military history, but found that Tuchman focused way more on strategies and military campaigns in her book than I was expecting. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, it’s just not really my cup of tea. I’m must more interested in big picture and the international events that occurred during the lead up to the war, which Tuchman does touch upon in her narrative. Overall however her book was just a bit too nitty gritty with military details for me. Fans of military history and strategy will love this, while other may find it hard not to get lost in the details.

 

Recommended Listening:
If you’re a fan of the intricacies of military history, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast (Specifically the Blueprint for Armageddon series) would be a good listen. Be warned these episodes are LONG! 

Recommended Reading:
For anyone needing a refresher on WWI this timeline provides key events and easy to digest content about the lead up to war.

I loved this news article from a couple of years back because it showed how the outbreak of war was announced in the papers. 

Alternate Reading:
Those interested in a more socio-political look at the outbreak of war might appreciate Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (2014)

PayingGuestsWith her novel The Paying Guests, Waters looks at postwar 1920s London, but through a very unique lense. We are first introduced to the Wray family, spinser Frances and her mother who live together alone in a townhouse. Due to the deaths of the men in the family, Frances and her mother are forced to rent out a room in their house to a young couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber. While initially Frances is suspicious of the the couple, she then strikes up a friendship with Lillian which develops into something much more.

Without giving too much away the story is essentially about the blossoming friendship and eventual affair that occurs between Lillian and Frances set against the backdrop of 1920’s London, a time in which class and gender structures were very much in flux. While I very much enjoyed the story as well as Waters’ writing style, so much of this book seemed so very long. There were parts that dragged on forever without ever really coming to a conclusion. Waters’ writing is great, but the editor really should have cut this book down about 100-200 pages. The unnecessary dialogue and inner thoughts detracted from the rest of the book.

As a feminist scholar specializing in female sexuality in Victorian England, Waters certainly knows her subject and sets the scene beautifully. She is not unfamiliar with creating a dramatic story and does so quite well. Even though the book runs a bit long in places, it is still a worthy read and a great piece of historical fiction.

Margaret MacMillan – The War That Ended Peace (2013)

The_War_That_Ended_Peace_EditorCopy_EditWhile her previous book, Paris 1919 dealt with the end of the First World War, her most recent looks at why war broke out in the first place. In her very detailed way, Margaret MacMillan walks the reader through all of the events that led up to the outbreak of war in order to answer one question, Why did the long peace not continue?

Building on the copious literature that already exists on this subject, Margaret MacMillan provides her own take on this question. She takes a rather hard stance, something unusual for historians, stating that the naval race is a key, if not the key factor in explaining the growing hostility between Britain and Germany. This is an interesting approach, and one which, I will admit, I had not given much thought to before.

The most interesting thing I found however was the long list of assassinations that occurred leading up to the First World War, and how while all of these had the potential to start a war, none of them did. This makes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand both unremarkable and incredibly important at the same time. The panic around these assassinations or “terrorism” that occurred is also eerily familiar and proves that sometimes history does repeat itself.

MacMillan has also learned from Paris 1919, not to focus too much on individuals and personalities. She does still rely on prominent men to explain why some events played out the way they did, but she does not rely on them as heavily as she had done in previous writing.

I liked this book better than Paris 1919, although it is not for the faint of heart. At just over 600 pages, MacMillan has done her best to cover everything she can to explain the outbreak of hostilities. Those passionate about this time period will find her work enjoyable, while those looking for a lighter take on the subject might want to steer clear of this one.

Charlotte Gray – The Massey Murder (2013)

massey-murderI was expecting this book to be simply about the murder of Albert, “Bert,” Massey at the hands of his maid, Carrie Davis, who shot him in cold blood after he made a sexual pass at her. The book however unravels to tell a story of Toronto in 1915, a rapidly changing city at the height of the First World War.

Gray moves carefully through each chapter providing details of the case and trying them to larger trends in Toronto. The first half of her book deals largely with Victorian sensibilities regarding women, something that I have always found interesting. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a rise of reform movements, most notably for suffragettes, women campaigning for the vote. Upper and Middle Class white women also campaigned for a number of different causes, including prison reform. Gray deals popular practices in criminology at the time including craniology, as well as the idea that while men committed crimes, women committed sins and could therefore be rehabilitated.

The most shocking thing about this case is while even though Carrie Davis admitted to killing Bert Massey, the jury voted her not guilty. Gray details the brilliance of her lawyer, Hartley Dewart, and how he tied Carrie’s case to the War overseas. Carrie as a virgin girl was protecting herself from the advances of her employer, much like British soldiers overseas were defending themselves against the advances of the Germans. He essentially made Carrie an allegory for British values and it worked.

Gray talks a lot about the popular opinions surrounding the trial and the ways that the different newspapers in Toronto treated the case. I wish she spent a bit more time tracing the fall out, but she does mention that the case against Carrie Davis did not set a precedent. This book was still great, it’s always interesting to read about places that you are familiar with and reading about Toronto in 1915 as well as seeing pictures was enjoyable.

Scott Anderson – Lawrence in Arabia (2013)

17book "Lawrence in Arabia" by Scott Anders.Never doubt Great Britain’s word. She is wise and trustworthy; have no fear.” This ominous quote from King Hussein to his son Faisal runs throughout the whole book.

I’ve yet to see Lawrence of Arabia in it’s entirety. I’ve watched bits and pieces of it often out of order. It is just so incredibly long, and it’s not something I was ever that interested in. After reading this book however, I might just give the movie another shot. The movie is famous for its portrayal of T.E Lawrence’s humane approach to the fighting that took place in the Middle East during the First World War. Lawrence’s reputation and work however, is much more complicated.

Anderson carefully constructs a narrative of T.E Lawrence that is neither redeeming nor condemnatory. Often time Anderson refers to the movie as well as Lawrence’s memoirs, Seven Pillars, when discussing the events that occurred in the Middle East during the First World War. He places Lawrence alongside other notable characters such as Aaron Aaronshon, a Jewish colonist in Palestine; Carl Prufer, a German diplomat in the Middle East conspiring against Britain; and William Yale an American oil man who became the state department’s “special agent” for the Middle East. With this cast of characters, Anderson sets up an interesting narrative of the Middle East during this time. Using this many characters however, makes the story slightly more complicated to follow.

Even though the book is marketed as public history, it is very dense and contains a lot of information. In university I took one or two classes on politics in the Middle East, so some of what was talked about in the book was familiar to me. However, I did find myself lost at times, needing to refer back to events that happened earlier in the book, or wikipedia-ing terms, treaties, and events that I didn’t have full knowledge of. I have no doubt that those who are interested and have previous knowledge of the area and time will find Anderson’s take on Lawrence’s story to be refreshing. Those who don’t however, may find themselves lost trying to muddle through the already complicated history of the Middle East.

For me, Anderson’s book was wonderful, not due to his treatment of T.E Lawrence, but rather due to his unabashed claims about the First World War, especially seeing as how these next four years will be filled will celebrations and ceremonies commemorating the events of WWI.

By the early 1910s, with all the European powers perpetually jockeying for advantage, all of them constantly manufacturing crises in hopes of winning some small claim against their rivals, a unique kind of “fog of war” was setting in, one composed of a thousand petty slights and disputes and misunderstandings. … Amid this din of complain and trivial offence, how to know what really mattered, how to identify the true crisis when it came along?” (61)

The different treatments and views of the War in these coming years will be interesting to explore. Anderson’s view that it was through a series of misunderstandings and petty slights is indeed and interesting one and believable in the context of the Middle East.

WWI

Wishlist Wednesday – The Great War

Welcome to “Wishlist Wednesdays,” a new feature on this blog where I post things that I wish I had, or just find pretty cool. This week, The Great War, by Joe Sacco.

We were discussing artist’s books in class last week and myProfessor brought in a selection of books for us to look at. Among the books passed around was Joe Sacco’s The Great War, a 24 page accordion-style book illustrating the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Due to the panoramic nature of the work, Sacco provides illustrations not only of the battlefield, but also of officers quarters and villages well beyond the front lines so the audience has a clear overall picture of wartime battles as well as life itself.

A portion of the work depicting the Battlefield.

A portion of the work depicting the Battlefield.

The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the First World War, as well as one of the bloodies, with over 1,000,000 men killed or wounded. The result of this Battle was inconclusive, and with such high losses sustained, it left many wondering, “Is it worth it?”

While some may feel that Sacco’s illustrations and “cartoonish” style of drawing detract from the brevity of The Great War, I disagree. For me, this depiction of the Battle of the Somme is all the more powerful for being wordless.

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Presenting On the First World War: Memory and Remembrance

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to present at the Humber Liberal Arts @IFOA Conference, “Representing World War I: Perspectives at the Centenary. The First World War was a monumental event and the way it is remembered is important. Recently it has become important to look at the way the war is remembered by those outside the dominant narrative. The paper I presented on, titled “Red Man On The Warpath”: The Problem of Native Canadian Enlistment During the First World War,  dealt with these themes:

Close to 4,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were of Aboriginal descent, a very high number given the limited civil rights afforded to Aboriginals in the early twentieth century. This number is especially striking given the problems that many Native men faced when attempting to enlist in the war.

When war broke out in 1914, Canada did not have a clear military policy and the Militia Act of 1904 was especially ambiguous regarding the role Aboriginals were to play in the military. Much of this ambiguity was due to the idea at the turn of the century that Aboriginals were “a disappearing race.” Because at the state of the war, recruitment centres were flooded with volunteers, local recruiting officers could afford to be very picky, and most agents would have relied on their own personal prejudices against Natives when considering their attempts to enlist.

This paper will build on much of the scholarly research done on Native Canadian contributions to the war effort, but focus purely on the early days on the way and the problem of recruitment by looking at popular images of Aboriginals in Canada at the time. Within these popular images includes the reoccurring tropes of the “Nobel Savage” or the “Bloodthirsty Redskin.” Local recruiting officers would have accepted or rejected Native recruits based on personal prejudices, which would have been necessarily informed by the dominant images of Native Canadians at the time.

The response to the paper was largely positive and I fielded some really engaging questions from the audience. The question on everyone’s mind however, seemed to be “Why did they fight?” It is a difficult question to answer, and can be applied to almost everyone in the First World War. The truth is I don’t think we’ll ever really know. Native Canadian men enlisted in the First World War to show their support for the crown, to better their own communities, for a sense of adventure, and for many other reasons that we may never be aware of. Not knowing the reasons for enlisting makes remembering the war difficult. We remember those who fought and died, but do we remember what they died for? With the case of the First World War it is quite tricky and the reasons for fighting were not as clear as they would be 20 years later. As many others who spoke mentioned we need to re-evaluate what we remember on November 11th. Yes we remember the Canadians that died in battle, but we also need to remember that they died to ensure a lasting peace. Peace. That is what the remembrance of the First World War, and any war for that matter, should be about.