Hitchens reviews a WWI book

In today’s New York Times, Christopher Hitchens reviews To End All Wars, a new book about World War I by Adam Hochschild.  He calls it “a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.” I’ll be reading it for sure.

The book, and Hitchens, dwell on the horrible loss of life—a sacrifice to no good end.  (Remember that at the battle of the Somme, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day alone, and total casualties, killed and wounded, were around 1,100,000.) Indeed, Hitchens claims that the entry of America in the late stages of the conflicts forced a peace that was so harsh for Germany that it gave rise to Naziism.

Ruthless as they were in the killing of others, the generals were also shockingly profligate and callous when it came to their “own.” In some especially revolting passages, we find Gen. Sir Douglas Haig and his arrogant subordinate Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson actually complaining when British casualties were too low, and exulting — presumably because enemy losses were deemed comparable — when they moved into the tens of thousands. What this meant in cold terms was the destruction of whole regiments, often comprising (as in the cases of Newfoundland and Ulster) entire communities back home who had volunteered as a body and stayed together in arms. They vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking mud. Or lay in lines, reminding all observers of mown-down corn, along the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements against which they had been thrown. Like me, Hochschild has visited the mass graves and their markers, which still lie along the fields of northern France and Belgium, and been overwhelmed by what Wilfred Owen starkly and simply called “the pity of War.” (Owen was to die pointlessly as the guns were falling silent: his mother received the telegram as the church bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice — or better in retrospect to say “fragile cease-fire.”)

While I’m on the Great War, as they called it, I’d highly recommend a trilogy of novels about that conflict and its psychological effects on British soldiers: The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker.  This series, a combination of fact and fiction, is, I think, one of the best English-language novels of the last fifty years. The last volume, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995.

Do recommend any war books—fact or fiction—that you’ve liked. I’ve previously recommended Anthony Beever’s The Fall of Berlin and The Fall of Stalingrad: 1942-1943. 


  1. Sven DiMilo
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    War books? Never a priority for me. I did think Dispatches was pretty cool, though, when I read it 25 ya.

  2. Dominic
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Sounds interesting. A friend of my brother has just written a Phd about British cavalry in WWI. For the largest number of English – as opposed to Bristish – casualties, the Battle of Towton 550 years ago, was brutal – 28,000! There is an article on the Battle in the May issue of ‘History Today’.

  3. Tom Stewart
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Without a doubt, Homage to Catalonia.

    Many years ago, as a teenager, I read all Orwell’s novels and collected journalism and left HtC right to the end, thinking that it wouldn’t appeal. How wrong I was – it is his greatest work.

    Recently I recommended it elsewhere and at the time read the reviews on amazon to pass on a flavour of what it was about. Just about all the reviews were good but few of the reviewers got what I did out of it.

    Orwell was writing about the proxy struggle between the Soviets and the Axis powers in Spain. On both sides, not least his own, the truth was sacrificed to some bogus coherence to fit the powerplays of outside influence. It was reading this that convinced me that truth is always paramount, and although I’ve always been an atheist, convinced me further that if we allow people to spread lies in their own interests, we will always suffer in the end.

    As I said, not everybody got that from the book. But it’s worth reading anyway for the quality of the prose and the description of war.

  4. paul01
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Bomber by Len Deighton about a bomber raid that went awry, seen from both the perspective of the English bomber crew, and the German citizens on the ground. There is a sequel Good-Bye Mickey Mouse which I haven’t read but I will recommend it even in advance- about an American bomber crew (The Americans bombed by day, the British by night). Reminds me I must download that one!

    Also Good Bye To All That by Robert Graves. Not much “action” but has the feel of reality, the boredom, the successive disappearances of people from the lives of those left behind, some notes on the national characters of some of the combattants (e.g. are the Canadians bulshitters? He gives a sample story- and yes we sure are!). Also some material on Seigried Sassoon the homicidal poet.

    • Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      Damn! You beat me to Grave’s Goodbye to all That! I love that book. Very interesting musings on post-traumatic syndrome too. And of course, as expected of Graves, brilliantly written…

  5. paul01
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Also One Of Our Own by Willa Cather. It won the Pulitzer Prize around 1923. Mostly about growing up in the midwest (in a partially German neighbourhood), but this includes going to war in the latter half

    • joe
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      ‘one of ours’

      • paul01
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        Right. Thank you.

  6. Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink


    The first time I read it, I found much of the earlier portions of the book to be uproariously funny.

    The second time I tried reading it, I couldn’t make it past the first dozen pages or so without breaking into tears.

    I haven’t dared to read it since.


    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      that’s about right.
      Great, great book.

      • David Leech
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

        I’ve read it four times and it still makes me laugh out loud so I don’t know what that says about me:-(

    • daveau
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Probably time to re-read that. Haven’t read it since the 70s.

  7. bacon
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Your might enjoy ‘Blood Rites – The Origins and History of the Passions of War’ by Barbara Ehrenreich

  8. Posted May 15, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I like Sebastion Junger’s (author of “Perfect Storm”) book about Afghanistan called simply WAR. The prize winning documentary, Respeto, was shot during the same deployment to a mountain to[ guarding Kuyper Pass to Pakistan.

    This is the clearest explanation of Afghanistan I have seen.

    • Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink


      • Microraptor
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        A documentary movie about the war in Afghanistan. It won some major awards.

  9. BilBy
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Just to second the choice of ‘Regeneration Trilogy’ – if you liked ‘Goodbye to All That’ then you’ll like the trilogy. Adam Hochschild also, I believe, wrote ‘Leopold’s Ghost’ about the Belgian Congo. Stunning and horrifying and wonderully written.

  10. Hempenstein
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Altho I haven’t been there, to have any chance of grasping the magnitude of WWI, a visit to the Ossuary at Verdun should probably be one of the first stops.

    • Boggins
      Posted May 19, 2011 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      Last summer during a tour of the Low Countries we stopped at Ypres. The Menin Gate is covered with thousands & thousands of names of men & women who lost their lives; & these are just the names of the combatants (on “our” side) whose remains were never found/identified. We all wept a little.

  11. Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I second ‘Goodbye To All That’ and ‘Catch 22’. And Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’. I have a soft spot for Mailer’s ‘The Naked and the Dead’. Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’ is superb, and his non-fiction ‘The Fatal Englishman’ is even better, I think.

    ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is rather good. And, of course, Spike Milligan’s ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall’.

    • Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      I was actually fairly surprised it took this many comments for ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to come up.

      • lamacher
        Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        I agree. ‘All Quiet … is, IMO, in the top rank ever of war books, along with ‘Das Boot’ and ‘Slaughterhouse Five’.

      • Ivor
        Posted September 15, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        All Quiet on the Western Front is very moving.My Dad was in ww1 and I often look for him when scraps of film about the War are shown on TV

  12. Garnetstar
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Sorry for making a sweeping statement, but the best WWI book of all time is The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell. It won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Award.

    The dedication is “To the Memory of Technical Sergeant Edward Keith Hudson, Co. F, 410th Infantry, killed beside me in France, March 15th, 1945” and that’s indicative–Fussell writes about the war from the point of view of an infantryman. He also discusses the literature that arose from the war, especially the war poetry and the memoirs of Graves, Sassoon, and Blunden.

    It’s fascinating and moving. Can’t recommend it highly enough, as you may have noticed.

  13. Phil
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Not, technically a war book, but ‘Proud Tower’ by Barbara Tuchman, is an excellent social history of the people responsible for the great war.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      And of course, Tuchman’s ‘Guns of August’ is one I’ve read and re-read.

  14. still learning
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    From a woman’s viewpoint, Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth”. She was a nurse and served in France. Not only could she write about personal war experiences but, upon returning to England, she could see the war’s devastation at home. The loss of young men in England, France, and Germany was a catastrophe.

  15. Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Simon Garfield edited together an interesting trilogy of books using the Mass Observation archives [MO was a project ‘to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires.’]

    The first two, We Are At War and Private Battles, cover the second world war period. Obviously they cover the home experience rather than the front line, but they are fascinating stuff.

  16. David Leech
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Safely Quartered out here by George McDonald Fraser. This is a great book of the author’s experiences of the war in the far East. It might even prompt you to read the Flashman papers:-)

  17. Pablo
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Hell In A Very Small Place, by Bernard Fall, about the battle at Dien Bien Phu which essentially ended the French’s presence in Vietnam. Brutal.

  18. MadScientist
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    John M. Keynes was involved in the negotiations at Versailles after the war. He was furious at the proceedings and was not shy to say that Germany was being treated so badly that it would likely be forced into war to break the crushing debt of the war compensation payments. So Hitchens has some historical support for his stated position. The UK also lost some brilliant young scientists; they learned a lesson and tried to reserve such people for jobs back home rather than on the front. As Grignard and Fischer demonstrated in the war, chemists are far more lethal when they’re kept away from the battlefields.

    The books sounds interesting; I’ll grab a copy if I see it.

    • Posted May 25, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      Is there any serious historian who doubts that the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles on Germany (who, after all, didn’t even start the war) was the main cause of the rise of Fascism in Germany between the wars? IIRC, it called for hefty reparations to be paid until 1985. Children’s children’s children, anyone?

  19. Posted May 15, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    the film by junger is restrepo..
    the forgotten soldier is great
    operation mincemeat, absolutely.

  20. salon_1928
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    The First World War by John Keegan. John does a good job at describing the political climate of the time and the reasons that nations went to war in the first place.

    This post is giving me the urge to head to a used bookstore. I’ve been fascinated with American Civil War history these days as well. Anyone have a book recommendation or two?

    • Keith from NJ
      Posted May 16, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson. It covers the war and the social/political background behind it. You should be able to find it in your local library but believe me, it is well worth buying.

  21. NoAstronomer
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert, *Sir* Martin Gilbert. Shows how the murders started from the very beginning of the war. Like To End All Wars, very depressing to read.


    Shelby Foote’s American Civil War trilogy. Since Foote was also a novelist his writing is excellent.


    PS The US’s arguments for restraint in punishing Germany after WWI fell on the deaf ears of the French and British.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      Post World War I history cannot be understood without reading the extremely fascinating book by Richard M Watt, “The Kings Depart”. Great stuff about Wilson Versailles, and especially the tumult in Germany, with the Socialists, Communists, and private armies of former German front-line soldiers criss-crossing the old German Empire. You understand why the National Socialists were able to ascend. I’ve read it about 4-5 times.

  22. Greg Esres
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Churchill’s Six Volume “The Second World War).

  23. Hempenstein
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Herbert Hoover was on the ground in Europe all during WWI, directing food relief*, at first under Wilson (while the US was still neutral). For his nonfiction accounts of that epic humanitarian effort, see the latter part of the first vol of his Memoirs (1874-1920, Years of Adventure), his account in re. Woodrow Wilson (The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson), and the first three (of four) volumes of An American Epic).

    *For which I’m told that one lasting memory is a word in Finnish: hooveri, meaning generosity.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      You reminded me of the book about the little-known Russian famine, where the USA provided aid:
      “Big Show in Bololand”

      small review: http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=3250

      This book is an example of why I’ll miss book stores, and, perhaps, why they will never go away. I found “Big Show in Bololand” (Bololand=land of the Bolsheviks) while wander the aisles, and simply was arrested by the title. I stood and read a dozen pages, and though it was expensive, I purchased it on the spot. Very enlightening, funny, sad, fascinating. Quite brilliant, in sum.

  24. Robbert Folmer
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I own a little gray paper picture book called “O, dat wintertje ’45”, written right after the winter of ’45, the fifth year of occupation of the Netherlands. It was affectionately called the ‘hongerwinter’ because of the extreme cold and famine.

    From Dutch:

    This book is dedicated to those countrymen who only just managed to keep their mouths above water, and when they did go under would say “ah, I was just getting thirsty!”

    The whole thing will have you crying with laughter. I suppose the author knew that tears of laughter are tears none the less.

  25. gillt
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War. I think he’s a war historian. Read the New Yorker review

    Also “A Distant Mirror: the calamitous 14th century” by Barbara Tuchman is a classic.

  26. Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    The Real War 1914-1918 by B.H. Liddel Hart is a really good read of the purely military aspects of the war. Originally published in 1930.

    Fictionally, I really can’t recommend the Southern Victory series from Harry Turtledove enough (beginning with How Few Remain, followed by The Great War (4 book series), American Empire (ditto), and Settling Accounts (ditto ditto). He can be formulaic at times (understatement!), but he’s a damn good writer nonetheless.

    • Microraptor
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I noticed you skipped The Guns Of The South in your list.

  27. Hempenstein
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    And for another experience, I highly recommend the Soča (aka Isonzo) River, on the border between Italy and Slovenia. (Google images: Soča River). I briefly kayaked on it somewhere between Bovec and Kobarid a few yrs ago on the break afternoon at a meeting I was attending. Beautiful, but there were these steep escarpments on one side of the river, and I could see what looked like ascending paths cut into the rock face. And then there seemed to be caves at the top. These, I learned, were remnants from WWI, and that the Soča had been the front between Austria and Italy. It seems that the only way Westerners are likely to become aware of this front is from Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (need to read this; see Wikipedia Battles of the Isonzo). And then it developed that the conservative estimates of casualties on this ~100km front is 300,000. I can only tell you that that puts an entirely different color on the memories of that kayak trip. To visit this area, suggest going to Kranjska Gora in the NW corner of Slovenia and then drive over the Vršič Pass to Bovec and then on to an excellent WWI museum in Kobarid. You’ll find the ruins of many interesting fotresses from the 19th century along this route. See especially Google images –> Fort Hermann Slovenia (NB: a number of mis-attributed photos) The real FH is a 30min hike from the road.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Further to Fort Hermann, I just found this excellent photo-essay of the place.

      The iron ladder to the lower galleries is new since I was there in ’08 when the fort seemed only semi-preserved (and was inhabited by a family of goats). Now it appears that it is being maintained as a tourist/cultural history site, something that must not have held much interest while Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia (vestiges of which seemed few even three summers ago).

      • malefue
        Posted May 16, 2011 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        as an austrian, i can say that the mountain warfare of ww1 deeply engraved in the collective memory of my country.
        i remember a number of documentaries about it i saw on public television when i was little. it must havbeen gruesome, hunkered down in winter in the alps.

  28. bric
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Strangely enough, although it is not about the war itself, Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is one of the best books about the effect of the First War on England.
    For the Second War, Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ is spectacular.

  29. Peter Edwards
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    One of the best books I have read about the second world war is
    “The Man Called Intrepit” by William Stevenson. It describes the intelligence war that is necessary to be successful on the battlefield.


    • Peter Edwards
      Posted May 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      Spelling correction “Intrepid” and not “Intrepit”

  30. John K
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I recommended this on choiceindying a few weeks ago – No Parachute by Arthur Gould Lee. An excellent read, the letters of a nondescript airman to his wife, giving a real sense of the life of a pilot fighting a separate war miles above the terrible carnage below. Incidentally gives lie to the foxhole atheist myth – “…Anyway, how can anybody who has to fight believe in God, with all the mass killings, and with British, French, and German priests all shouting that God is on their side? How can I call on God to help me shoot down a man in flames?”

  31. Posted May 15, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    There is a great series of lectures on iYunes on European history by Margret Anderson @Berkeley History 5 that put all this in a continuous context. It’s under podcasts.

    The dissolution of the various empires, population pressures and vicious inter-group hatreds and murder seem to just have been industrialized in the 20th century.

    Human nature does not change — well, it does get worse.

    For example, the Europeans had easily defeated native colonial “armies” with machines guns but never thought what shooting them at other Europeans would do. Duh

    The story of the World Wars is worse than we know and are still discovering. Look for lectures on the book “Bloodlands” to churn your stomach.

  32. Posted May 15, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Henry Green’s two novels, Caught and Back. Green was his own kind of writer, and you’ll know within the first 10 pages whether he’s for you or not. Caught is based on his own experience as a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during WWII, and Back concerns the experiences of a released prisoner of war returning to England, where his lover has since died. Both are stunning, subtle, funny, and deeply affecting.

    I’m also a big fan of the Regeneration trilogy and especially of Fussell’s book, which, as intended, shaped my view of all 20th century events.

  33. Fré Hoogendoorn
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I actually just yesterday finished Antony Beevor’s ‘The Spanish Civil War’, which I read based on how well written and enjoyable ‘Stalingrad’ and ‘Berlin – The Downfall 1945’ (which I guess are the European titles of the books you mention) were. His ‘D-Day’ is also to be highly recommended.

    I also enjoyed Niall Ferguson’s books ‘The Pity of War’ and ‘War of the World’. Not easy reads, but definitely worth the effort.

    The classic war history is of course ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’ by Thucydides; try the translation by Jack Crawley. A 5th century BC historian (and participant in the war), he pretty much set the standard for narrative history, and was the first to omit the gods as causes and influences in the events of men in a written history (compare Herodotus).

  34. Tim Harris
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Ernst Junger’s ‘The Storm of Steel’ is one of the very greatest books to have come out of WWI. (Also, if you can get hold of it, ‘On The Marble Cliffs’ is an extraordinary brief novel, published in 1939, that is an allegory of Hitler’s rise to power; it was translated by Stuart Hood, who wrote a fascinating account of his time fighting with Italian partisans – ‘Pebbles from my Skull’ was the original title, but I think the revised version has a different title.) Yes, Graves’s ‘Goodbye to All That’ and Fussell’s brilliant ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’, of course. And ‘In Parenthesis’, a long poem about fighting in WWI by the Anglo-Welsh poet and painter David Jones, who fought through the whole of the war; it is one of the great poetic works of English modernism and was acclaimed by T.S. Eliot; Jones’s ‘The Tribune’s Visitation’ is, to my mind, one of the very greatest middle-length poems of the last century. While on the subject of poetry, the WWII poems of Keith Douglas, Somhairle MacGill-eain (Sorley Maclean – he wrote in Gaelic) and Hamish Henderson are the equal (and, to my mind, in some cases better) of the best poems from WWI. John Keegan’s ‘The Face of War’ is an extraordinary and disturbing work of history, Sir Michael Howard’s ‘War in European History’ an illuminating one. C.V. Wedgewood’s ‘The Thirty Years War’ remains probably the best account of the religious wars that tore Europe apart in the 17th century. And there’s much more…

  35. Tim Harris
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Henry Williamson’s depressing novel ‘A Patriot’s Progress’, which is based on his experiences in WWI, is also worth reading if you can find a copy.

  36. Dale Edwards
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I strongly recommend With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge. He offers a vividly horrifying, first-hand account of the Pacific campaign during WWII.

  37. Tim Harris
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    And, re WWI, there is Geoffrey Hill’s great poem about the poet Charles Peguy, who was killed in action: ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’. And, from a Japanese perspective, the novel ‘Fires on the Plain’ by Ooka Shohei, about the war in the Philippines. And while on Japan, Heike monogatari, the story of the Japan’s great civil war between the Genji and Heike clans in the 12th century. Then there are the wonderful Serbian ballads about the Battle of Kosovo (Peter Levi’s translations are the best).

  38. paul01
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    August 1914 by Solzhenitsyn, about the collapse of the Russian military

    And Quiet Flows the Don by Solokhov, about the suppression of the Don Cossacks

  39. Posted May 15, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    A couple that I recently found worth reading . . . A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 by Trotter. Lesson learned . . . don’t mess with the Finns. And so we never forget how horrible war truly is, try to get through The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II by Iris Chang. Her life story is also disheartening.

  40. Betty Frandsen
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Suite Francaise…about the invasion and occupation of France…about 1940. Irene Nemirovsky is the author. Beautifully written, lives of ordinary people, Amazon has good reviews. A novel, but the author was living it.

  41. Charles Murtaugh
    Posted May 15, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    If you loved the Regeneration trilogy (I fully share your high opinion of it), you’d probably enjoy “The Children’s Book,” a recent Booker Prize short-listee by A.S. Byatt. It follows several children growing up in late 19th-century/early 20th-century Britain, and as they age and the years advance, the reader feels 1914 looming up like a great fly-swatter (while the characters themselves are appropriately ignorant). The war itself occupies only a relatively small final part of the novel, but it is intense and merciless — there’s no doubt that Byatt and Barker read much of the same source material, the war poets in particular.

  42. Posted May 16, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    “A Man called Intrepid” by William Stevenson about William Stephenson (Intrepid), who, almost songle-handedly and almost at his own expense set up the British Secret Intelligence Service.

    A man who literally changed thecourse of history.

  43. PeterJ
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    For a feeling of what war in the trenches of 1914-18 was actually like, then ‘The War the Infantry Knew’ by Captain J.C. Dunn is a classic.

    For a modern description, Richard Holmes’ ‘Tommy’ is excellent; Holmes is a great recent loss.

    And John Keegan’s ‘The Face of Battle’ is a wonderful examination of the fighting experience at Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme.

  44. frank sellout
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I recommend Wil Bird’s: “Ghosts Have Warm Hands.” an autobiography about a Canadian soldier. It is a good read from someone who served on the front lines and shows both the bitterness and comradeship that war brought out.

  45. Keith from NJ
    Posted May 16, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    If you are interested in the causes of WWI, take the trouble to read The Long Fuse by Laurence Lafore. He considers Austria-Hungary as the nexus of background causes of the war. Although it is not a war book, I most highly recommend Dreadnaught by Robert K Massie, a study of Great Britain and Germany in the late 19th-early 20th centuries leading up to WWI. You will thank me for this recommendation after reading it.

  46. JBlilie
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    The Guns of August by Tuchman
    The Second World War by Churchill (the whole 6-volume job — wonderful)
    The River War by Churchill
    The Peloponesian War by Thucydides
    The Anabasis by Xenophon
    Love and War in the Appenines by Newby
    The Forever War by Filkins
    The Conquest of Mexico by Prescott
    The Gallic War by Caesar
    Seven Pillars of Wisdom by (T.E.) Lawrence — skip the beginning until he lands in Jeddah.

    All of the above are wonderful.

    On the edges of war:
    Seven Years in Tibet by Harrer
    No Picnic on Mt. Kenya by Benuzzi

    • JBlilie
      Posted May 17, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Also The Face of Battle by Keagan

  47. Diane G.
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.

    And No Birds Sang, by Farley Mowat.

  48. Arkham
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    Can somebody help me in my search for a movie about WW1? I watched it as a child in the 80’s on television and can’t remember the title. Here’s what I remember: the main character was a grunt in the trenches, he loved to draw, which led to his death when he stands to better see a bird that he is sketching. That’s all I remember except that it made a profound impact on my 9 year old mind. I’m curious to see how it will be with me as an adult.
    I may be remembering the story entirely wrong, or perhaps placing too much emphasis on what may in fact be a minor character, but any help would be appreciated.
    Sorry for going a bit off-topic.

  49. Posted July 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Arkham (Post 48) – Could it be “All Quiet on the Western Front”? There’s a scene in there involving a bird. I can’t remember if he’s drawing it or not.

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