Russell Freedman has set the standard for fine history writing for many years, and this new volume lives up to his own high standards. A master prose stylist and an expert at taking complicated subjects and making them specific, immediate and fascinating, Freedman uses wide-ranging research to weave a hugely interesting story rooted in an abundance of detail, but readers will never feel they are reading a textbook or a school report; they are reading a superb story.
Of course, in 1914, when World War I began, it wasn’t called World War I. It was a conflict sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the nations of Europe—interrelated, connected by a network of military alliances and armed to the teeth—fell into a war through “a series of accidents, blunders, and misunderstandings.” It was the first modern war with new weapons used to deadly effect, and four years later 20 million people were dead and the world had been transformed. As Freedman says, “The Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, America’s emergence as a world power, the Second World War, and the continuing turmoil in the Middle East all have their roots in the First World War.”
Each chapter of this superb history has a clear focus. One is devoted to the latest developments in lethal weaponry—rapid-firing rifles, machine guns, barbed wire, tanks, poison gas and flamethrowers. Another focuses on Battle of Verdun, and another on the Battle of the Somme. The roles of women and of African-American infantry regiments are discussed, and the final section explores how the Treaty of Versailles, rather than ending the war effectively, was really just an “armistice for twenty years,” planting seeds of discord in the Middle East and setting the stage for World War II.
Complementing Freedman’s fine writing is the careful design of the volume, full of archival photographs, eyewitness accounts and maps. Even the captions for the photographs make interesting reading. Freedman is always meticulous in his documentation, and in his selected bibliography here, he offers several excellent book recommendations for young readers, including Walter Dean Myers’ The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage (2005) and Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful (2004). Any new book by Russell Freedman is a treat, and this is one of the best books of the year.