What to read after watching PBS’s The Great War on American Experience: NONFICTION

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Image credit: PBS http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/great-war/

World War I connects two of my favorite historical eras–the Edwardian (1901-1910) and the “Between the Wars” era of 1918 to 1939 (yes, 1939–for the rest of the world the Second World War started September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland). As a self-styled history freak I’ve read masses of nonfiction in my life. I also love historical fiction. Here are some Great books to read about the once Great War now known as World War I. While we learn (well, we used to learn) in school that the war was from 1914 to 1918, in truth American soldiers were just in the field long enough to end it–arriving in summer 1917. Britain, France and Germany had been at it in deadly stalemate for so long they massacred a generation. Therefore most of the books are from the British experience.

Memoir

41xaJJS++GL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Vera Brittain was a well-born, well-educated young woman who volunteered as a nurse. Her memoirs tell the story of her life and those of her brother and friends–all upper class (but not the loftiest of the old aristocratic families–her brother went to Uppingham, not to Eton or Harrow). The “rap” of that day and that class was poetry–they were all poetry mad. But that soon faded with the carnage she witnesses in the hospital in France. It is of her true coming-of-age that she writes–the loss of her boyfriend, the carnage she sees, the change from naive, sheltered youth to battle hardened and worldly war nurse and adult.

This is one of  the classic memoirs of the era, albeit not of the American war experience. Her experiences in the hospital were without national boundaries. It was made into a tv series shown on Masterpiece in the 70s or 80s and again recently into a movie. The book is such compelling reading. Not to be missed. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.

 

Causes

51QOJNA+ykL._SY346_Now book on the causes of World War I has been stuided more than Barbara Tuchman’s classic, The Guns of August. JFK cited it as one of the best books he’d read. I read it in college and re-read it after college. Blundering into war? Outdated thinking? Bureaucracy? Ridiculous concepts of chivalry and honor? Read it and make up your own mind. Never was a generation more senselessly sacrificed. (I also read The Germans by Gordon Craig and together they were a master class in World War I). Again, this book is not strictly on the American experience of the war, but it is essential to understanding how it all happened and why we had to ultimately join the war.

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.

 

Our Leaders

 

A recent and very readable biography of President Wilson and a brand new biography of General Pershing (is one of two books on this list I have not yet read).

 

The Royal Connections

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There are more substantive biographies of each of these men, but this book more than shows how the Prince Consort’s plan for peace in Europe by marrying his many children to foreign royals didn’t really work. The first cousins–two of whom, George and Nicholas, were often mistaken for twins, were bound by blood ties. But even Nicholas, an autocrat, by 1914 was hemmed in by reforms that gave the civilian government more power. Wilhelm, crippled at birth was left scarred in too many ways. George, who had trained for a navy career, but found himself on the throne after the untimely death of his elder brother, was far happier out on his Norfolk estate shooting. King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War by Catrine Clay.

 

The Fabled Poets

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No understanding of the war can skip its poets and their words. I have not yet read this book. Great Poets of World War I by John Stallworthy.

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