The First World War by Hew Strachan

Hew Strachan’s book, The First World War, attempts, in the space of a little over 300 pages to give the reader a view of the entire scope of the war, drawing the reader’s focus away from the well-trodden Western Front and establishing a feeling for the global nature of the war. Instead of focussing on the well-worn cliches of the war, Hew Strachan establishes the global nature of the war from the outset, devoting only one full chapter to the cataclysmic struggle in Western Europe.

After a well-written and thoughtful analysis of the causes of the war, treading along the well-trodden sequence of events that sparked the conflict, Strachan devotes equal time to the Balkans, Eastern and Western fronts. From here, Strachan, develops his theme of Global War, covering the Far East, the activities of German naval raiders and events in colonial Africa (an area of the conflict I had previously devoted little thought to). The role of religion and the German alliance with the Turkish Ottoman Empire merits a whole chapter, covering the Gallipoli campaign and according equal credit to both the Australian and New Zealanders and the Turkish defenders.

The Eastern Front and the role of Germany in buttressing the flaky Austro-Hungarians is examined before Strachan propels the reader to the Western Front and efforts of both sides to find a way to break the deadlock that new forms of warfare had brought about. Here Strachan begins to develop his theme of Germany’s limited resources, ranged against many enemies, whilst supported by allies who weren’t always as useful as they should have been. The naval blockade imposed by the British Navy and its effects on the German home front lead into a chapter on the naval encounters in the North Sea.

The closing chapters of the book examine the sequence of events that resulted in the end of the war, with the Russian revolution, the last big offensive by the Germans (which came close to winning the war) and the closing stages of the conflict, concluding with a look at the aftermath of the war and the origin of some of the more enduring elements of popular memory.

The First World War is written as a companion piece to a Channel 4 (British) documentary, but this status has not affected the book in any discernible way standing, as it does, on its own to feet as a remarkable work of cramming a massive subject into a small book. Obviously with such a huge subject and limited space, there are subjects that have spawned hosts of literature which are not covered in depth here, for example, the cataclysm at Verdun merits just a few pages. However, the reader is left with the impression that Strachan has encompassed the full range of the war and certainly a feeling that all the main events and themes are covered. The reader is left with the impression that the reduced space of the book has been used to focus Strachan’s analysis; there are insights on every page and many nuggets of information that engage the reader’s interest and keep the pages turning.

Strachan’s gift here is his ability to communicate his analysis in short pithy phrases, providing a layer of informed opinion over the facts whilst taking a pragmatic stance about what the historian can and can’t be certain of with the benefit of hindsight. When you consider the complexity and range of experiences that comprised the events of the First World War, it makes Strachan’s achievement all the more remarkable. He leaves the reader with the gift of greater knowledge of the main events, a greater understanding of people’s motivations in fighting the war and, perhaps most precious of all, a feeling that the war was worth fighting for those involved. This final point explains why soldiers fought for so long under such difficult conditions and contributes to efforts to the overturn the traditional mud, misery and murder narrative. All in all, this is a readable and rewarding book that repays the time spent.

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