Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The First World War Remembered: In Association with Imperial War Museums — Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

The First World War Remembered: 
In Association with Imperial War Museums
by Gary Sheffield
Andre Deutsch, 2014

The First World War Remembered brings to life the events of the war from its outbreak to its aftermath and legacy. The book is comprehensive; it covers the Western Front, the war in Africa, the war at sea, Eastern Front battles, the Italian Front, campaigns in Palestine, the role of women in war, literary influences, diplomacy in war, the Russian Revolution, trench life, war in the air, the USA's entry into the war, and the final battles.

By way of a background, Sheffield identifies different national perspectives on the events of 1914–1918. In Britain, the war is seen as either a monstrous tragedy that should never have happened or a disaster that was not of Britain's making but in which involvement was unavoidable. From a French or German perspective it can be seen as the second round of the Franco-German war that began in 1870 and did not end until 1945. From an American perspective, World War One marked America's entry onto the world stage. Australia, New Zealand, and Canada were inclined to see the war as the time when they emerged from under the protective wing of the mother country. For Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states, World War One marked the beginning of a movement toward national self-determination. German Nazism, Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism were, argues Sheffield, all direct results of the war.

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Sheffield emphasizes the importance of both the home and the battle front. Each of the 55 sections of The First World War Remembered is complemented by over 200 photographs and color battle maps and more than 30 researched rare facsimile documents, including personal and unit war diaries, letters, secret plans, telegrams, orders, maps, and posters. The facsimile documents include Kitchener's order to the British Expeditionary Force sent to France in 1914, a letter describing the Christmas truce of 1914, and Sir Douglas Haig's handwritten draft of his famous "Backs to the Wall" order.

Sheffield's study is accompanied by a DVD which contains firsthand accounts of soldiers on the Western front. It also includes an edited silent film that is part of a series of films produced in 1918, toward the end of the war. The archival footage was shot by official cameramen working for the British War Office and features many sequences showing tanks on theWwestern Front.

In addition to reproducing more well-known details of battles, Sheffield also introduces lesser known features of the war. The section called "Specialists" is a case in point. Here fascinating information is provided on signalers, police, tunnelers, and medics. Sheffield notes, for example, that many decorations were won by signalers who crawled out into No Man's Land to repair broken telephone wires. He also describes the work of Ernest Gold, a British meteorologist, who was a pioneer in providing information on atmospheric conditions.

What is missing from the study, however, is the contributions of the pacifists to the war effort. While Sheffield mentions the growing influence of pacifism after the war, he makes only brief references to it during the war itself. These occur primarily in the section on "Literary Influences." As the books reviewed in our series on pacifism have revealed, the situation and role of the conscientious objector is a much neglected area in World War One studies.

Sample Pages

Sheffield concludes his study with reflections on "The Short Twentieth Century." He argues that "…the years 1914–1991 can be seen as one period bounded by the beginning of the First World War and the end of the Cold War." In between came the collapse of old monarchical regimes, the rise of dictators, World War Two, and the fall of the USSR. World War One was, concludes Sheffield, the trigger to a series of events that changed our world forever.

The First World War Remembered is the work of one of the world's leading experts on the military history of the war. The inclusion of rare material, meticulously researched and reproduced, the broad span of the study, and the above-mentioned DVD make The First World War Remembered a treasure trove for any reader interested in gaining a broad view of World War One, of its "strategies, tactics and battles, and the lives of the people who were there." The comprehensive index facilitates the navigation of this large and impressive volume. Packaged in an elegant presentation box, The First World War Remembered is an excellent gift for World War One enthusiasts and scholars alike. At just under $50, it is also excellent value!

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

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