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Monday, 12 November 2018


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Interestingly enough, Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On the Western Front, is a good read in English. In the original German, it is regarded as most kitsch and cliche.

Thanks for this, Mike. You've mentioned some interesting books on WW1. With regards to films on the subject, I'd like to mention Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion.

The scene when Jean Gabin says in German 'Lotte has blue eyes' is one of the most moving of all time.

WW1 is a constant reminder that war can a happen even when all logic dictates otherwise. The globalized interconnections of trade among the great powers meant they should have had no interest in war, but it does bear remembering that very few people expected the war to last that long (although there were some who guessed correctly). Most felt the war would be swift like the Franco-Prussian or Austro-Prussian war. No one seemed to think of the American Civil War and take note. It is a very interesting to wonder why. Even more incredible is that the Nazis were happy (and I use this word intentionally) to start all over again. Even Robert Graves, I seem to remember, was an active and at the time a not unenthusiastic warrior, although later on after the war he seemed more affected. In present times we have to be aware that prickly nationalism can lead to catastrophic consequences (US "versus" China comes to mind).

Barbara Tuchman's books are a fantastic read, scholarly researched and well-written! I re-read A Distant Mirror every couple years for re-enlightenment on why people wanted to escape the political and religious oppression of 14th century Europe for the New World. The Zimmerman Telegram complements The Guns of August in showing the sheer arrogance of the German Government. Stillwell and The American Experience in China reveals our governments' hypocrisy and is the prelude to The March of Folly's chapter on the Vietnam War.
Particularly interesting in The Guns of August is that the British and French Military developed plans in the early 1900's to defend an anticipated German invasion of France. Do things ever change?

History repeats itself over and over much to the dismay of students of history and those of us with long memories. Tuchman's book "The March of Folly" is a good reminder of how ignoring the obvious and oneupmanship with a lot of ego and little horse sense has gotten in the way of pragmatism and coming to a simple solution. Over and over again these strong egos with little temperance has let the the little conflict grow to the point of no return and no backing down to a common-sense resolution to solve the issue. "...Folly" shows that time and time and time again from the Trojan war more than 3300 years ago to the 1970s and Viet Nam. Today, that history is repeating itself.

With her "Guns of August", the beginning salvos of "The Great War", Tuchman continues pretty much on the same theme of a little transgression here, a little transgression there and soon egos get in the way of logic and it all goes to hell in a hand basket, and the folly continues into the conflict, death, destruction and solving little to nothing.

Another book expanding on "Guns..." is Scott Anderson's "Lawrence in Arabia", expanding upon the concept of Folly and expanding its reach by several years before "Guns..."

All three books lead to a scary scenario that seems to as though we are living these vary same days as recorded by Tuchman and Anderson but a century later.

I hope I'm not right but with my memory and study of history, I'm almost certain the cycle will continue again and again...

When I was at university in the UK, I had access to the boat club's records. There were extensive notes from the WW1 period concerning the fates of the members from years just previous. One year, I don't remember exactly which (this was over 50 years ago now), not a single member of the first VIII survived. There were serious losses from at least two other years.

Tour any of the small villages that dot the English countryside and one can get a measure of the impact WWI had on the nation. Typically, there is a memorial statue on the commons that lists the names of the thirty to fifty or more war dead from the small community that probably numbered no more than a few thousand. Most villages have been preserved as they were a hundred years ago, so as one reads those names and looks around, it is easy to imagine the devastating emotional, social and economic impacts such losses would have had in that more simple time.

I would add Robert Graves' Goodbye To All That which ranks alongside All Quiet On The Western Front, for its description not only of the hellishness of trench warfare but also how it destroys the mind.

[Thanks Jeremy, but that WAS one of the books I mentioned! I guess you missed it. --Mike]

My grandfather Andrew fought at Gallipoli as a doctor. However the “war to end all wars “ left him as one of doctors incharge of the evacuation from Dunkirk , and then in Korea.

The plan didnt work.

Much as I love the black and white images of James Ravilious and Chris Chapman . In a way however those images of the first world war always look from another universe.

Peter Jackson has produced a wonderful film ...”They shall grow not old.”

He has coloured the black and white film and brilliantly lip sinked the silent film. It brings the horror and humour and everything into something poignant and immediate. A brilliant and unique contribution. A wonderful tribute to his family members who fought. Good on him. A truly inspiring film.

Lovely post Mike.

Another book to add to the list, which is incredibly moving, is War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.


I haven't seen it yet, but Peter Jackson's film "They Shall Not Grow Old", featuring footage from the war restored and digitally enhanced with color and sound, is receiving much acclaim, seemingly accomplishing the director's purpose:

'I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more - rather than be seen only as Charlie Chaplin-type figures in the vintage archive film... There's been lots of documentaries made on the First World War...and I just decided for this one to strictly just use the voices of the guys that fought there... It's not the story of the war. It's the story of the human experience of fighting in the war.'

As far as I know, WWI was the first industrialized war--the obscene scale and speed of destruction and death enumerated above was made possible by the technological and economic developments of the second industrial revolution, and made much worse by its novelty.

P.S. US release date for Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old is December 17.

Thank you for this post, Mike. We need to be reminded that what we now call "Veterans Day" was originally called "Armistice Day" and celebrated the end of a senseless and brutal war. The British poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just one week before the Armistice was signed, captures the madness in his poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est":

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Another excellent book on WWI:


As well as prose, don't forget the poetry that emerged from WWI. Owen, Sassoon etc. Also, the work of Ivor Gurney, gassed in the trenches and traumatised, who in my opinion composed the best songs in the English art song idiom

For a more up to date version of Tuchman’s book “The Guns of August” try Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers” or Margaret McMillan’s strangely titled “The War That Ended Peace”. The best summary of how and why the first world war ended is McMillan’s “1919”.

I recently finished Keegan's "The First World War", an encyclopedic treatise.


"The War that ended Peace", by Margaret Macmillan (Professor of Intenrational History at Oxford, among other posts), is a recent and pretty-much definitive account of how first Europe and the many other parts of the world stumbled into the Great War. Recommended.

The truly worrying thing is that I can see parallels between then and now.

A couple of other books are worth a mention: “Her privates we” by Frederic Manning and “Storm of Steel” by Ernst Jünger (who later served in occupied France). The first is anovel, but I think it’s quite good and the second is biographical and, in my recollection, different in tone (if that’s the right word) from similar works coming out of that war.

Also interesting is “Now it can be told” by Philip Gibbs who was one of the four officially accredited British correspondents on the western front, and, as the book title indicates, published a more complete version of his experience a few years after the war ended.

I grew up in France, where, especially in the northern “départements”, the scars from that war are still in evidence.

Dan Carlin's "Blueprint for Armageddon" podcast on the war is very good and appropriately punishing listening. It's available at all the usual outlets free: https://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-50-blueprint-for-armageddon-i/

There would be few wars if Politicians kids were the first to go into combat.

For those musically inclined: The album “A Feast of Consequences” by Scottish singer/poet Fish (Derek W. Dick) contains the 25 minute “High Wood” Suite (5 songs) about the atrocities of WWI. As far as I remember, he had grandfathers fighting on both sides of that war.


Several times each winter I take a winding private road up to a windy old hilltop in the Yorkshire Dales to pursue my sporting pastime. Near the top one passes a tiny WW1 Memorial (https://www.walkingwiththetaxidriver.co.uk/the-walks/leeds-pals-ww1/leeds-pals-long-walk-to-the-somme-colsterdale/) to the Leeds Pals Battalion who trained there before going to France. It’s all sheep pasture again but you can still the outlines of the huts they lived in, see: https://binged.it/2RPDfhz . It’s not the “Somme” but it must have been damned uncomfortable. When they got to the battle of the Somme the battalion casualties, sustained in the few minutes after Zero, were 528 men, of which 248 were killed.

Two more must reads are:


Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier ( https://amzn.to/2OA12QF ), the least known of the three great anti-war novels to come out WWI: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Remarque, and The Good Soldier Svejk ( https://amzn.to/2OC93EI ), by Jaroslav Hasek. Available in translation from the Czech, The Good Soldier Svejk introduces us to the archetype of the wise-fool soldier, popularly portrayed in another war as Sargent Schulz in the film Stalag 17 and the tv comedy Hogan's Heroes.

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 ( https://amzn.to/2FgCblv ), Adam Hochschild, which highlights the opposition to the war in Britain and the terrible toll that the war took on the social fabric as well as on combatants.

Thanks Mike. For once this was a really good, informative, and appropriate off-topic post.
(Too bad the "powers" that got us into 'afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, etc, paid no attention to history).
Apparently we will never learn.

Yes, but let's all read:

Just to keep things in perspective. If I’m anywhere close to the average age of this blog’s readership, the things many of us learned about WW1 have undergone 30-odd years of scholarship since.

Yes, it was an awful event, but not as uniquely or monolithically or insanely as we learned.

["Many soldiers enjoyed WW1. If they were lucky they would avoid a big offensive, and much of the time conditions might be better than at home. [...] Many young men enjoyed the guaranteed pay, the intense comradeship, the responsibility and a much greater sexual freedom than in peacetime Britain." If I were you I wouldn't take that "debunking" article as your sole authority, Julian. Historical consensus and a wide variety of viewpoints need to go into a more measured appraisal. --Mike]

You missed two books (both set in the Austro-Hungarian forces):

* The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek:


* Radetzky March by Joseph Roth:


The first parodies the chaos of the system, and unfortunately the author drank himself to death before completing it. The second chronicles the death of Empire and its social hierarchy, at least to a degree. Listen to Mahler while reading them.

I’m not ashamed to admit this: I love the books by Maude Montgomery, starting with Anne of Green Gables. The last book in that series is different, in that it takes place during the Grand War, and it’s also alone in being just fokkin depressing. (Still a good book though, that chick could really write.)

- Eolake

Speaking of ol' Smedley, most Americans are not even aware of the coup that was plotted against President FDR; a coup that may have very well occurred had it not been for Smedley, a coup that many would anxiously dispose into the conspiracy bin- had it not been made a matter of Congressional record!



"There was no reason for it to happen. It solved nothing. And no good came of it—">/i>

To the contrary, I feel that for many of us in other parts of the globe, the most notable achievement of the wasteful carnage was the seemingly abrupt end of European colonial and imperial control of far flung dominions.


Thank you (and subsequent posters) for the suggested reading!

Responding to one or two of the posts above... The problem that I see with Santayana's line, `those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it', is that it misses an important point: we (humanity) often repeat history despite remembering it. The real problem as I see it is that our ability (i.e., technological prowess) grows much faster than our wisdom, possibly due to chronic short-sightedness in combination with our innate self-centeredness.

Thank you so much for showing my comment. It certainly isn’t my only source of information about WW1. But that article and a lot of other sources should at least suggest to us that WW1 wasn’t just running through mud in Belgium. We know that most soldiers didn’t fight in the trenches. They were cooks, mechanics, ostlers, clerks, quartermasters, drivers, artillerymen, pilots, and so on. They fought mobile campaigns in Italy, Prussia, Eastern Europe, and around the world. Yes, the experience of combat is horrible, but we won’t avoid more if we just piously repeat old narratives.

It's been years since I read it, but another good first hand account of WWI is Guy Empey's "Over The Top." For a brief time, I considered narrating a recorded book version of it. In one unforgettable passage, Guy recalls the leg of a casualty sticking out of the side of his trench and how it seemed to writhe in his imagination. What a horrific image...

FIFY: (post by Walter)

"There was no reason for it to happen. It solved nothing. And no good came of it—"

Coming at the run-up to WWI from another angle, Miranda Carter's "The Three Emperors" (2009) is an entertaining yet disturbing account of the lives of George V, Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas, and the outcome of Queen Victoria's theory that close, ideally familial, relationships between monarchs could guarantee peace between their nations. Perhaps this might have been true if the individuals in question had not been so starkly flawed and isolated from reality. For the present day reader, there are also some fairly blatent parallels to be drawn between the unstable behaviour of Wilhelm and that of a current world leader.

Hi Mike,

Your friend must be older than 90 if he served in both wars. I hope he writes a memoir! I second Dan Carlin's series Blueprint for Armageddon as required listening!

[It was his dad who served in both wars. 1890-1988 were his dad's dates of birth and death I think, something close to that. --Mike]

If only Mankind would learn from such lessons... another disaster, that may have been a consequence of WWI, was the so-called Spanish flu, that also killed in the millions.

"The first parodies the chaos of the system, and unfortunately the author drank himself to death before completing it."

Sadly, the same fate also befell Joseph Roth.

The TV show Babylon Berlin is an interesting, if fictional, piece on post-WWI Weimar Germany. Looking for more on this intriguing time period of history.

In the category of never learning from history, consider that one of the main reasons France was so insistent on war reparations after WW I was that reparations were forced on them at the end of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war by Prussia. What goes around, comes around and "an eye for an eye" leaves everybody blind.

Mike, thanks for this post - I think WWI is critical to understanding the rest of the 20th century. Nearly every conflict of the rest of the century has its roots in what came out of WW I.

I echo the recommendation for Joseph Roth's Radetzky March. Apart from the historical backdrop it's a great and moving personal drama. One of the few books I have re-read several times.

I recommend viewing the work of Otto Dix, who savagely illustrated the futility of the war, and life in the trenches.

Some soldiers accounts that haven't yet been mentioned:

The WWI Diary of Ernst Jünger - the diaries kept
by the author of Storm of Steel

Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918

And We Go On - Will R. Bird:

Le Feu/Under Fire - Henri Barbusse:

The audio recording of the guns falling silent was interesting and quite moving. I had no idea that they fell quiet at that one moment, very odd.

But the Metro story about it was quite odd, "Strangely, audio couldn’t be recorded at the time so the Allies created them using ‘sound ranging, which recorded the intensity of noise to photographic film (a seismograph for earthquakes is a good comparison)."

Of course we all know audio was being recorded at the time. I would not have guessed that optical recording would be what they would have used. I associate optical recording with sound tracks on films. Indeed I paid quite a bit of money to have one made for a 16mm film I made, and crummy sound it was and is. But they didn't have magnetic recordings at the time. I suppose cutting a disc, classic analog sound, would have been a problem in the trenches, what with the dirt and all.

Interesting how modern writers seem to have so little reference about the technology of the time.

I live in a country (the UK) which was deeply affected by the great war: my grandfather fought in it, and my grandparents' & parents' generation were enormously changed by it. I can remember, very clearly, old men marching past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday and find it deeply strange to have lived through the time when it passed out of living memory. I spent much of Sunday standing in the rain watching people lay wreaths: it was convenient it was raining as tears are less apparent.

Nevertheless I think it is important to remember that while the great war was uniquely horrible, it is not even close to being the worst catastrophe of the 20th century in terms of death toll. The great war killed 15-19 million people. The second war killed more than 60 million. The 1918-1920 influenza pandemic ('Spanish flu') killed somewhere between 50 and 150 million people. More people died in the US from the 1918-1920 'flu than died in the second war.

Almost certainly I have missed some 20th century event which killed more people than the great war.

Our impressions of the relative severity of these events are, I think, extremely unreliable. In the UK we're biased because many more people died here in the first war than the second, even including civilian casualties, so we tend to think of the first war as worse than the second. Russians would have a very different opinion. We need to remember that people who don't live close by are also people.

Um, Mike, a 90 year old could not have served in the whole of a war that ended 100 years ago - typo? [read it more carefully --Mike] But I bet your friend's father can remember Armistice day marches by CIVIL war veterans - the last died in the mid-1950s - and it ain't so long ago...

I second Frederick Manning's 'Middle Parts of Fortune' as a great book about WWI (a forgotten Australian classic) - I have a Folio Society edition (I think still in print) with a lovely introduction by David Malouf (another great Australian writer).

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