REVIEW: The First World War (2005)

A Book by Hew Strachan

Hew Strachan is perhaps one of the more celebrated World War I experts, and delivers a book that strives to be different than all of the other World War I books on the market. I get the impression that most scholarship concentrates solely on the blink and you missed it U.S. tenure in the war or pretty much everything about the Western Front. I am not as well read on this subject as I should be, but I assume that those topics are the “Gettysburg” or “D-Day” of WWI, areas where all of the focus ends up. Strachan concentrates on the geopolitical structure of the time, politics, and even economic factors as he lays out perhaps one of the more involved books on a war that I’ve read.

“Nearly a century has passed since the outbreak of World War I, yet as military historian Hew Strachan argues in this brilliant and authoritative new book, the legacy of the “war to end all wars” is with us still. The First World War was a truly global conflict from the start, with many of the most decisive battles fought in or directly affecting the Balkans, Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. Even more than World War II, the First World War continues to shape the politics and international relations of our world, especially in hot spots like the Middle East and the Balkans.”

I have a few problems with this book, ones that somewhat hampered my overall enjoyment because they are big ones. I will be completely Honest, I am not a fan of history books that largely concentrate on dates and numbers, and this was one of those very books. Hearing endless lists of how much a country spent on various trade goods, or world GDP estimates is great information, but bogs down the book considerably. I’m more concerned with the narrative involved with the war, not an economics book. I also was not a fan of a constant undercurrent of the author basically saying: “what you understand about the war is wrong”, which is fine in some cases, but he gets somewhat silly here. Case and point, he seems to largely imply that World War I, or more specifically the Versailles Treaty ending the war had nothing to do with the build-up to WWII, and that Germany had no intentions of colonization nor World conquest – both topics have a mountain of other scholarship and evidence states otherwise, but I was waiting for his big payoff with such a bold claim – nothing. He also labors on about how bad Australia is at one point, and how some random guy said they weren’t tough, and therefore he has proven they were not as tough as historians think they are. Sure Hew, who cares exactly? It seemed like Hew was more interested in making “hot takes” than actually addressing some of the issue the war brought.

That said, I love that this book was less Eurocentric than most other books on the subject. Entire chapters were devoted to Africa and lesser known bits of naval warfare including some countries such as Japan that I honestly had no idea were involved in any way. It is for this information that the book is rescued for me. If you can get away from his weird opinions on things, and listen to some of the stories of these other places and perhaps compile it with a book that has a more cohesive vision, I’d think one could get a much stronger idea of what the war was about and what sort of impact it had on the war as a whole. For me, this book is largely a flawed attempt at what could have been an instant classic on scholarship in this field, perhaps his other books are better constructed, but I’m not sure I want to dip back in quite yet. Being on this recent World War I kick means I have some other books to read, perhaps they will be more of what I’m looking for.

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