The War to End All Wars: World War I
by Russell Freedman
published by Clarion Books
Nonfiction master Russell Freedman illuminates for young readers the complex and rarely discussed subject of World War I. The tangled relationships and alliances of many nations, the introduction of modern weaponry, and top-level military decisions that resulted in thousands upon thousands of casualties all contributed to the "great war," which people hoped and believed would be the only conflict of its kind. In this clear and authoritative account, the author shows the ways in which the seeds of a second world war were sown in the first. Numerous archival photographs give the often disturbing subject matter a moving visual counterpart.
Freedman's book has received much praise and some criticism, and I have tried to not let either color my own opinion as I read it. At first, I was a bit overwhelmed with the rapid pace at which Freedman tore through the causes and early stages of the war. World War I is a complex subject, and he did have to simplify and condense many events in order to squeeze them into a few coherent chapters.
At times, I felt like I was getting a "greatest hits sampler" of the war, with one-sentence references to popular figures like Eddie Rickebacher in Chapter 6: The Technology of Death and Destruction. While chapters like this one and the next one (on life in the trenches) were interestng, I also felt that they weren't telling me anything I hadn't already gleaned from history textbooks and movies. Later chapters, on the battles of Verdun and the Somme (chapters 8 and 9) engaged me more. Finally, I felt like I was reading something new.
The photographs throughout are fascinating, especially the ones depicting soldiers fighting just feet away from discarded bodies, or carrying wounded comrades to safety. I like that they are given so much space on the pages. I only wish that there were more maps. I could have really used maps during the chapters on Verdun and the Somme, so that I could picture the small stretches of land that were so fiercely and tragically fought over.
I like that the source notes are divided by chapter, and that the pages that they reference are clearly marked. The selected bibliography lists many recent works, but the narrative presentation makes picking out the titles and authors more difficult then if it had just been formatted as a list. The index appears to be comprehensive and is very useful for looking up specfic people and battles, as well as the various countries' involvement in the war.
Overall, this is a "big picture" type of book, meant to give you an overall picture of the subject rather than getting into the nitty gritty details. Along the way, however, there are some very interesting details, like the frequent quotes from soldiers who were there.
If there is a big picture that I get from this book, it is how arrogance tempts leaders of powerful countries into entering easy wars that prove to be anything but. Sound familiar? I hope that the irony of Freedmans' book title is not lost on his young readers.