On 28 June, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. By midnight on 4 August, four empires were at war: the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Serbia; the German Empire against France, Britain and Russia; and the British and French empires against Germany. It was hoped that the fighting would end by Christmas; in fact, it lasted four years and left almost nine million soldiers dead, with many more maimed and scarred for life. A further five million civilians are estimated to have died under occupation. It was a war the likes of which had never been seen before, leaving an indelible mark on the politics and society of Europe and the wider world.
In his engrossing account, Martin Gilbert traces each step of the war’s progression, from the tensions and alliances leading up to it and the first skirmishes on the French and Belgian borders, to the final peacemaking and remembrance. His geographical scope is equally broad, from Mesopotamia and East Africa to the ‘forgotten war’ waged in the Atlantic. He analyses the often disastrous decisions of the commanders on all sides – Kitchener, Haig, Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Pétain – who pursued the stalemate on the Western Front at a terrible cost to human life. The testimonies of civilians, medical officers and nurses, pacifists and others who spoke out against the war, add a further perspective.
Above all, this history shows us the soldiers in the thick of battle, their appalling privations and ordeals, their nightmares and their heroism. Individual stories are central to the book. The Canadian Private Hugh McWhirter, ‘a terrified boy in an ill-fitting uniform’, was blown to pieces in Suvla Bay in the Dardanelles. The French novelist Jules Leroux ‘disappeared’ in Artois, one of 16,000 men bombarded by artillery until no trace of their bodies remained. Lieutenant Ewart Mackintosh carried one of his men to safety through German trenches, while under fire, and was later awarded the Military Cross. Private Henry Farr, who had been treated for shell-shock, could not face the return to the front so was court-martialled and executed for cowardice. These horrors inspired some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century, and Gilbert’s narrative is interspersed with the verse written by those who witnessed and fought in the war.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Stalemate on the Western Front was matched by turmoil in the east, as the war expanded into the Middle East and Turkey. With Russia’s withdrawal from the war Germany was unopposed in the east. However, the Allies, now joined by the United States and under a single commander, held firm along the Western Front, and eventually drove the exhausted German armies into retreat with a series of counter-offensives, culminating in surrender.
The final chapters of this superb history consider the painful process of remembrance carried out by individuals, families and nations. They also show how this war would leave a bitter and unresolved conflict, to explode again within a generation.
Read more about the life and work of Martin Gilbert
Martin Gilbert was born in London in 1936. He was educated at Highgate School in London, where several of his teachers had fought in the First World War, including Geoffrey Bell and A. P. White. After doing his National Military Service, he travelled in the Balkans and Turkey, then studied History at Magdalen College, Oxford, under A. J. P. Taylor, who was then writing his Origins of the Second World War. In 1968 he became the official biographer of Winston Churchill. He is the author of over 80 books and is a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Review by johnbean9 on 7th May 2013
"Gilbert provides a gripping account of the horrific struggle that was World War I. He focuses on the personal stories of a wide range of men and women who served in the conflict or knew someone who se..." [read more]
Review by pedro7 on 3rd May 2012
"Of all the books Folio are offering at the moment,these 2 volumes have to be the best.They are beautifully written,hugely informative and impart a detail of knowledge unsurpassed on the subject.I have..." [read more]