Books: Michael Howard’s ‘The First World War’

The First World War by Michael Howard (photo – Oxford University Press)

The fog of war is a familiar term that describes the chaos that often prevails during battle, and as often obscures its details in recollection. A modified definition could easily be applied to the entirety of World War I. Few understand it well (including myself) despite its place as one of the most chronicled subjects in modern history.

To help lift the fog, I recently picked up a concise history written by Michael Howard entitled The First World War. I’d just finished listening to the excellent Dead Wake by Erik Larson that detailed the tragic, but preventable, sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by a German U-Boat and wanted to learn more than I knew about the War. The Flynns lost a family member, my great uncle, to its trenches and I know the echoes of that tragedy long outlasted the span of the conflict. I knew as well that I’d read enough of about the War that a 1,000-page tome on the topic wasn’t something that I was interested in starting on Memorial Day weekend. 
The First World War, in that regard, is perfect. Howard well describes the cascading (and confusing) alliances that drew Europe, and then the world, into the conflict following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. For us Americans in the crowd, it also does a fine job detailing our late, yet crucial, entry into the fray. Doughboys weren’t on the European continent long relative to the length of the War, but their arrival was key to keeping it from lasting much longer. 
Howard’s work weighs in at a taut 176 pages (including indices), and while the subject precludes it from anyone’s list of light summertime reads, it’s a great start to understanding the event that shaped so many of the last century of summers  for better and worse. – TF