excessively obsessively a lot about World War I almost seems like a rite of passage for us international conflict-types, and while my fascination with the war came late, it did dominate my reading for a good chunk of the last year. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been asked what my favorite book on the war actually is, and after giving a typically academic response (you know the type: endless qualifications and definitional hedging), I gave three.
Now, I’m not going to pretend to have some vast knowledge of the scholarship on the war, which is why I’m saying “favorite” instead of “best,” but my answer is all about what you want out of the book: a discussion of its origins, an in-the-weeds look at military strategy, or a sweeping look at the whole of the conflict. For each of those, here’s what I came up with:
- The origins of the war: Europe’s Last Summer by David Fromkin.
- Military strategy: Three Armies on the Somme by William Philpott.
- The war as a whole: Cataclysm by David Stevenson.
I’m actually having my graduate international security class read Europe’s Last Summer as a kind of warm-up for that class, to get them thinking about the politics of war and decisions over it, and the reason is, frankly, that it’s a well-written synthesis of fairly recent scholarship that draws some strong conclusions worthy of discussion. That said, it’s mostly about the July Crisis, ending before the action really gets going.
Three Armies on the Somme is similarly narrow in focus, taking a close and, I’ve got to admit, utterly spellbinding look at the creation of military strategy on the Western Front, focusing on the titanic Battle of the Somme that began in the summer of 1916. It’s got a fascinating take on attrition and trench warfare; given the other side’s strategy, responding in kind was a best response given the technological constraints of the time—a deeply tragic Nash equilibrium to a vexing, and profoundly high-stakes, problem.
Finally, Stevenson’s Cataclysm is necessarily broader in scope, covering the politics and sociology of the home fronts as well as the fighting and diplomacy itself, but no less interesting, even for a reader like me focused on bargaining and diplomacy, both before and during the war, and the problems of coalitional warfare and consensus-building. It’s a big book; don’t be fooled by the page numbers, because the print is tiny—makes you feel like whatever you read next is a large-print edition.
Still, if you’re looking around for some accessible book-length treatments of the war, I think it’s hard to go wrong with any of these.