On June 28, 1914, a Bosnian revolutionary assassinated the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne and set in motion a series of events that culminated in the First World War. August is the 100th anniversary of the start of this war, and several books have been published within the past couple of years commemorating the anniversary. These include Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings, and The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark.
Another important book on the outbreak and early stage of the war is Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative The Guns of August, which was published in 1962. Before I read this book I had thought of World War I mostly as a horrible stalemate, full of slaughter that gained neither side a real advantage. I hadn’t given much thought to what took place between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the start of the war. It hadn’t occurred to me that a complex series of events and movements preceded the trenches and no-man’s land that defined the war for me. Nor was I familiar with the battles in Eastern Europe, where the war began. I gained a lot from reading Tuchman’s enjoyable, fast-paced narrative.
These books show that this popular image of stalemate is only part of the story. Max Hastings points out in the introduction to his book mentioned above “It is widely supposed that the first day of the 1916 Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest day of the entire conflict. This is not so. In August 1914 the French army…fought battles utterly unlike those that came later, and at even more terrible daily cost” (Hastings, p. xvii). He estimates that in the first five months of the war 329,000 French soldiers were killed, including 27 thousand on August 22 alone (pp. xvii, 181). The other books I’ve mentioned also make similar points.
The authors also present different interpretations about the causes of the war. Was it a tragic accident or was it inevitable? Were the countries involved powerless to prevent it? Did they willingly and enthusiastically embrace the conflict? Could any country have prevented it? For instance, Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers argues that Europe stumbled into the conflict; Barbara Tuchman (The Guns of August) refuses to ascribe responsibility but shows that many countries were enthusiastic for war; and Max Hastings places primary responsibility squarely on one of the combatants. And how did the citizens and soldiers greet the war? Max Hastings uses letters, diaries, and journals of ordinary people to show the fear, disgust, exhilaration, boredom, enthusiasm, and disappointment elicited by the war. Barbara Tuchman focuses on the actions of military and political leaders. Christopher Clark writes in his book mentioned above “Public reaction to the news of war gave the lie to the claim, so often voiced by statesmen, that the hands of decision-makers were tied by popular opinion. There was, to be sure, no resistance to the call to arms….Underlying this readiness to serve was not enthusiasm for war as such, but a defensive patriotism…” (Clark, p. 553).
Of course, for a long time the combatants had plans for a coming war – Austria had Plans B and R, Germany had the Schlieffen Plan, France had Plan XVII, Russia had Plans G, A, and 19. And they were all determined to both get the upper hand and show that the war had been forced upon them. Had they made different decisions in response to the assassination of the Archduke, could war have been prevented or would it just have been postponed?
When I read history books I always expect to get detailed accounts of the major events. Also, I am often surprised by the small, unexpected details included. For instance, I learned from Max Hastings’s book that one of the British soldiers wounded in the early days of the war was a Private Ronald Colman. This is not surprising; soldiers come from all walks of life. But during the war, this battalion (the London Scottish Regiment) also included Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Herbert Marshall (Hastings, p. 486). Imagine Foreign Correspondent, Casablanca, A Tale of Two Cities, and the Sherlock Holmes movies without these actors.
If this 100th anniversary has sparked your interest in the First World War, whether you’re interested in the grand sweep of events or the perspectives of the men and women caught up in these events, the Denton Public Library has the information you’re looking for. We have the books mentioned above and many others. We have encyclopedias and articles. We have online resources. And we have the staff to help you find them.