World War One: History in an Hour, by Rupert Colley

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the first Battle of the Marne on 5 September 1914, I want to mention this excellent introduction to WWI. Colley has written a number of these History in an Hour books intended to give you basic information about a subject in an easily digestible form. At only 60 pages and illustrated by photographs, this ebook provides an accessible and accurate primer on the war, from Sarajevo to the Paris Peace Conference. Appendices identify key people and provide a timeline for easy reference.

I've long been interested in this war and have three shelves of books on the subject to prove it. As Colley says in his Introduction:

This, the first ‘world' war, was not just about armies winning and losing battles, but whole populations mobilized for war, at the mercy of the enemy, civilians starved and bombed. It was an industrial war where a country's whole economic output was geared to war; a war of empires that pulled in combatants from nations across the globe. It was a war of land, air and sea, a war of politics, espionage, and also the Home Front. For the first time in history, this was total war.

For me, immersed in the literature of England as I have been all my life, August 1914 was when the world changed. It spelled the end of the British and Ottoman Empires, but more importantly it was when the long enlightenment ended and the modern era began, when notions of duty and honor were replaced by cynicism and disillusionment. At the outbreak of the war, Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, the Foreign Secretary from 1905-1916, said, “ The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

Aside from facts memorised in school, I first came to the war through its poets: Rupert Brooke who died before he could lose his idealism, Wilfred Owen who learned to write a new kind of poetry in the trenches and mental hospitals, Siegfried Sassoon whose satiric poetry reflected his disenchantment, and others, all of whom seemed to know each other.

In “The Send-Off”, Owen wrote:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
. . .

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Once I started going to Europe and visiting the sites, I began reading more widely, memoirs, histories, even a modern guide to the war's locations. I became fascinated by the role played by supply chain logistics, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Russian Revolution, and the much-delayed entry of the U.S. Reading Timothy Findley's book The Wars brought home to me what wrestling with the mud must have been like. As Colley says of the Battle of Passchendaele, “guns disappeared into it, tanks sunk in it, a quarter of the men killed at Passchendaele drowned in it.” I began to understand J.R.R. Tolkien’s remark that the Dead Marshes where Frodo and Sam saw the faces of the dead looming up at them through the mud and water had their source in the Battle of the Somme.

And of course, the war was not won. It ended with an armistice, which as it turned out, only provided a breathing space until the war resumed as what we now call World War II.

With all I have read, I still found it good to come back and review the facts of the war in this short book.

Which WWI poets have you read?

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