Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: The Lost History of 1914 (Beatty)

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The Lost History of 1914: Reconstructing the Year the Great War Began.

A different perspective on the outbreak of the First World War which posits that, contrary to popular belief, war was neither inevitable in 1914, nor that some other crisis than the assassination in Sarajevo easily would have precipitated it.

Beatty builds on idea that the war happened because the governments of the belligerents wanted it to happen: not only that war was specifically on the agenda of one country’s head of state (guess who?), but also because it was thought to be an easy way out of the escalating domestic crises in the countries that were signatories of both European alliances. If any of them had focused on fixing the failings within their own borders, “world war” would not have occurred; moreover, the assassination in Sarajevo so perfectly fitted the bill for casus belli, that one wonders if Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph might not have had an ulterior motive to his encouraging Franz Ferdinand, the Heir Apparent whose reforming notions and mésalliance seemed to threaten the hegemony and purity of the Habsburgs, to take his beloved wife with him to Bosnia.

In accordance with the author’s hypothesis, a chapter is given to explaining the decision of the United States to enter the war. Beatty also provides a variant interpretation of the nature and necessity of trench warfare, and he expounds on the broader implications of the times and the war.

The book is an inexpensively-bound hardcover, but sports a dust jacket. The text is illustrated throughout with black-and-white reproductions of period photos and drawings, which are credited at the end of the book. There are both footnotes and endnotes, as well as an index. A half-dozen misspellings, occasional awkward grammar, and the repetition of long word-for-word passages in the introduction (a glaring editing/proofreading defect that should have pulled this printing of the book for pulping) mar an otherwise readable treatise.

Recommended, despite a few warts. Try it, and share your opinion, in a Letter to the Editor of this “trench newspaper.”

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Review: The Beauty and the Sorrow (Englund)

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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War.

A sprawling account that ambitiously attempts to encompass the whole of the Great War experience, both on and off the battlefield. Its Dramatis Personae include the Canadian wife of a Polish aristocrat, a German schoolgirl, a Scotswoman aid worker, a German sailor, a Hungarian cavalryman, a Russian army engineer, a Dane in the German army, a French civil servant, an Australian army engineer, a French army infantryman, a Venezuelan cavalryman in the Turkish army, an American army field surgeon, a Belgian air force fighter pilot, an Australian driver serving with the Serbs, an American infantryman in the Italian army, a New Zealand artilleryman, a trooper in an Alpine regiment of the Italian army, and two British army infantrymen: all “more or less forgotten,” according to the author.

One of the subjects is of the “less forgotten” variety: Sarah Macnaughtan, whose story I first encountered in Wounded, which covers only her service in the soup kitchen she set up at Furnes Railway Station. Englund recounts more of her adventures on both fronts of the European theatre of war. Not all of them were successful, ultimately because of the worsening illness that eventually took her life (it was not until the 1920s that it was discovered that Macnaughtan’s anemia can only be successfully treated – although not cured – with vitamin B-12 injections).

This was a difficult read, because of how the stories are organized: broken up into vignettes that are presented subordinate to the chronology of the war. It would have been a more enjoyable account if each person’s story had been presented intact, the way that the biographies in Wounded are written. I had to resort to flipping through the book to find and read all of the parts of each story, to maintain continuity.

Each section of the book begins with a timeline for the year that’s covered therein. There are two large, glossy sections of unique photographs, featuring portraits of the subjects and views of the areas in which they lived or served. The book ends with brief wrapping-up summaries for each person, and an extended quote from Mein Kampf. Documentation includes a respectably-sized bibliography, a list of illustrations, and an index.

The Great War researcher who can cope with the piecemeal presentation of the biographies will find a great deal of helpful detail about the everyday lives of combatants and noncombatants. Recommended, but with reservations.

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Review: Storm of Steel (Jünger)

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Storm of Steel.

Not for the squeamish: filled with graphic descriptions of war injuries and fatalities. Revelations of insight and of emotional trauma are relatively rare.

The translator explains in the introduction how he tried to maintain idiomatic fidelity, but the thoroughly Anglicized text obscures any Germanic flavor. A short supplementary bibliography is supplied by translator.

As with the Sulzbach memoir (With the German Guns), the level of detail was produced from the extensive contemporary diaries that were kept by the author. Apparently Jünger’s memoir went through several revised editions during the author’s long postwar life, although it was not as thoroughly sanitized as Sulzbach’s.

A good resource for those engaged in research.

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