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

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

First World War for Dummies

By Dr. Seán Lang
For Dummies Publishers, 2014
Ron Drees, Reviewer

This line of books should have been titled “…for The Curious” as dummies may not have the necessary curiosity to read a book. It deals with the entire war, from causes to battles to politics to the reasons for Wilson’s failures between the World Wars. There is the aftermath including casualty counts, commemorations, burials, museums, political boundary changes, personal postscripts, top ten films, writers, and places to visit. A disappointment was the failure to mention the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Perhaps the title should have been “The Short Encyclopedia of the First World War for the Curious.”

First World War for Dummies is a good read for those just beginning to study the Great War or military history in general. The basics are covered with enough detail to facilitate understanding without drowning in minutia. Websites are listed that provide more details for those who have a greater interest. There are plenty of maps and sidebars to explain several topics in a bit of detail—but not too much. However, more photographs would have been useful.

“First…” is not just a retelling but a running commentary on the successes and failures of the war and the decision makers. Beginning with turn of the century aspects, forces leading up to the struggle are recounted. There was widespread hope that the world had matured and differences could be settled peacefully, yet matters escalated while no one seemed to be watching. Causes and crises are reviewed and how these did not need to become a world war.

The author describes how the war started, the mud at Passchendaele, trench combat, the strong and weak points of U-boat warfare, and military discipline. Weaknesses of various empires are examined and how these fell during the war, while the seeds of dissolution of others were sown as new nations would evolve.

Civilians were also affected, more strongly than in other wars, resulting in social changes in women’s employment, suffrage, and starvation. Women became farmers and factory machinists, only to be pushed back into the kitchen with the Armistice; however, they did obtain limited suffrage. While military casualty numbers are listed, civilian casualties (the greater tragedy) are not discussed in sufficient detail. Also, a breakout of flu casualties, particularly deaths, would be useful as this surely impacted the conduct of the war.

There is a fair amount of discussion of the Italian front, how that was fought and botched, with implications for WWII. The connections between the wars are explored. However, there is rarely enough discussion of how the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian War influenced the French decision to continue fighting in 1917 and 1918, or the 1919 treaty and reparations.

The collapse of the German army explains the end of the combat of the Great War and how the lies associated with that were used to justify the start of WWII. Then the end of war treaty was the gut punch to the German psyche. Yet, after all the destruction caused by the gray-green forces, why were they surprised at the terms offered but not negotiated?

For those who are new to a study of the Great War or 20th-century history, First World War for Dummies will go a long way to explaining many aspects of the history that affect us today. One can learn about causes of Middle East turmoil, the beginning of Communism, how Japan acquired land that became important in WWII, and why the 20th century became known as the American century. This book is indeed a fine introduction to the study of World War One.

Ron Drees


  1. Excellent summary not only of the book but of the war itself. This is the book I needed several years ago. Great job, Ron--thanks!

  2. Yes, well done review. I could have used this book several years ago but I think I'm going to take a look it now as a way to, perhaps, organize all the books I have read on disparate topics concerning the war.

  3. Excellent review as always. This is a book that many people today need to delve into to understand the politics of the age; however, I suppose like most field reports it'll be ignored because the lessons couldn't possibly be of interest 100 years hence.Like field reprts from the American Civil War, Franco-Prussian War, and the Russo-Japanese War. Who knew. Cheers

  4. I was pleased to read this review. Some years ago I purchased the book and felt sort of guilty about it. I now have a vast library of books about World War I. Thank you for alleviating my initial guilt!