This November will mark 100 years since Germany signed the armistice that brought World War I to a close. Yet in many ways “the war to end all wars” has never really ceased. From the outbreak of a second world war just twenty years later to the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s and the current perilous state of Turkish Democracy, the smoldering ashes of WWI have ignited time and time again. These nine books—arranged by genre and covering the hostilities from the home front, the trenches, and the hospitals where soldiers were treated for a new injury known as “shell shock”—are essential to understanding how a century-old feud shaped the world we live in today.
The Guns of August
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and one of the Modern Library’s top 100 nonfiction books of all time, this is the definitive history of the first 30 days of the war—a month that set the course of the entire conflict. Tuchman brings a novelist’s flair to her subject, from the spectacle of King Edward VII’s funeral procession—“The sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendour never to be seen again”—to the dust and sweat and terror of the German advance across Belgium. She captures the war’s key figures with flair and precision and enlivens her analysis with a dry-martini wit: “Nothing so comforts the military mind as the maxim of a great but dead general.” Most astonishingly of all, she creates genuine suspense out of the inevitable march of history, convincing her readers to forget what they already know and turn the pages with bated breath.
The First World War
Twenty years after its original release, this gripping chronicle remains the best single-volume account of the war. Keegan, an acclaimed British military historian, brings a refreshingly clear-eyed perspective to some of the 20th century’s most confounding questions: Why couldn’t Europe’s greatest empires avoid such a tragic and unnecessary conflict? And why did so many millions of people have to die? By foregoing radio and telephone to communicate by letter, Keegan explains, world leaders effectively rendered themselves deaf and blind. The problem was grotesquely amplified on the battlefield, where weapons technology had advanced to the point that entire regiments could be wiped out in a matter of hours. No other history brings the war’s mind-boggling magnitude—70,000 British soldiers killed and 170,000 wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele alone —into sharper focus.
As an acclaimed correspondent for London’s Daily Express, Moorehead covered WWII from North Africa to Normandy. But the Australian once swore he’d never write about the most famous military engagement in his nation’s history: the Battle of Gallipoli. He’d heard more than enough stories from ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) veterans back home and had grown bored with the subject. Thankfully, he changed his mind—and his eloquent, elegiac account is a modern day masterpiece. From Winston Churchill’s plan to “launch the greatest amphibious operation mankind had known up till then” to the costly, avoidable blunders that doomed 50,000 Allied troops (11,000 of them from Australia and New Zealand), Moorehead vividly captures the grand ambition and tragic folly of the campaign. His sketch of army officer Mustafa Kemal, later known as Kemal Atatürk, is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand how the seeds of modern-day Turkey’s independence were sown at Gallipoli.
WWI brought about the fall of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires and displaced millions of people across Europe. Faced with the monumental task of reshaping the world, Allied leaders convened the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919. Over the next six months, delegates from 27 nations redrew international borders, hashed out the terms of Germany’s surrender, and laid the groundwork for the League of Nations. Above all, they aimed to prevent another world war. They failed, of course—Hitler invaded Poland just 20 years later—but this engrossing, comprehensive history debunks the harshest judgments of the Treaty of Versailles and provides essential context for understanding its myriad repercussions. MacMillan covers impressive ground, from the Balkans to Baku to Baghdad, without losing focus on the colorful personalities and twists of fate that make for a great story
Testament of Youth
The daughter of a well-to-do paper manufacturer, Vera Brittain left her studies at Oxford in 1915 to join England’s Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a nurse in London, Malta, and France. Like so many others of her generation, she felt called to be a part of something larger than herself. By the war’s end—and before she turned 25—she had lost her fiancé, her brother, and two of her closest friends. Her chronicle of the war years, her return to Oxford, and her attempts to forge a career as a journalist is both an elegy for a lost generation and a landmark of early 20th-century feminism. Upon the book’s original publication in 1933, the New York Times declared that no other WWI memoir was “more honest, more revealing within its field, or more heartbreakingly beautiful”. Eighty-five years later, that assessment still rings true.
Goodbye to All That
This spellbinding autobiography is by turns poignant, angry, satirical, and lewd. It’s also, according to literary critic Paul Fussell, “the best memoir of the First World War.” A lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (where he fought alongside his friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon), Graves was severely wounded in the Battle of the Somme and reported killed in action. His family had to print a notice in the newspaper that he was still alive. As befitting a man returned from the dead, Graves breaks all conventions, mixing fact and fiction to get to the poetic truth of trench warfare. Sassoon, for one, objected to the inaccuracies, but Good-bye to All That touched a nerve with war-weary readers and made Graves famous. It has gone on to influence much of the 20th-century’s finest war literature, from Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Storm of Steel
An international bestseller when it was originally published in 1920, this fiercely lyrical memoir is the definitive account of the German experience during WWI. Jünger, a born warrior who ran away from home at the age of 18 to join the French Foreign Legion, fought with the German infantry in the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras, and the Battle of Cambrai. He was wounded seven times during the war, most severely during the 1918 Spring Offensive, when he was shot through the chest and nearly died. He received the German Empire’s highest military honor, the Pour le Mérite, for his service. Taken from Jünger’s war diary, Storm of Steel has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that separates it from other WWI autobiographies. Some have criticized it as a glorification of war, while others, including Matterhorn author and Vietnam War veteran Karl Marlantes, think it’s one of the truest depictions of the combat experience ever written.
All Quiet on the Western Front
This iconic German novel was first serialized in 1928, 10 years after the armistice. The book version sold millions of copies and was quickly adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. By then, the Nazi Party was the second largest political party in Germany; Joseph Goebbels led violent protests at the film’s Berlin screenings. Three years later, he banned and publicly burned Remarque’s books in one of his first orders of business as Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda. Why the intense hatred for the story of a young man who volunteers to fight in WWI? Because it is one of the most powerful anti-war novels in Western literature. In Remarque’s downbeat tale, one nameless battle is indistinguishable from the next and the lucky survivors are doomed to lifetimes of disillusionment and alienation. No other book, fiction or nonfiction, conveys the existential horror of trench warfare so clearly.
This audaciously intelligent, powerfully moving historical novel, the first in a trilogy, opens with the full text of Siegfried Sassoon’s letter refusing to return to active duty after receiving treatment for gastric fever. The declaration, which was read in the House of Commons, earned him a mandatory stay at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where he was treated for shell shock by the noted neurologist Dr. William Rivers and became friends with fellow poet Wilfred Owen. From these facts, Barker fashions one of the most original works of WWI literature, intertwining fact and fiction to explore Freudian psychology, the doctor-patient relationship, nationalism, masculinity, and the British class system, among other fascinating topics. Foregoing battlefields and trenches to explore the terrain of the human mind, Barker gets to the essential truth of WWI: No one who lived through it—man or woman, soldier or civilian—saw the world the same way again.