proseandkahn (proseandkahn) wrote,

Non-Fiction Monday: The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman

  Summer vacation day 18/ book 17

(Cover image reprinted courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company)

From the back cover: It was called the Great War because so many nations fought and so many people died. The first full-scale war to employ modern weapons, the conflict of 1914-18 was also called "the war to end all wars" because it was unthinkable that humankind would allow such carnage to be repeated.

Once again, Russell Freedman's masterful storytelling skills bring history to life. If a book about war can be called beautiful, this one can - somberly beautiful. I read the arc so I don't know if any design changes are in store. The cover image is startling in its clarity considering the image is over 90 years old. Black and white photo reproductions appear on nearly every page and vary in size from small insets, such as a portrait of Nicholas and Alexandria, to dramatic double page spreads, such as an action shot of Australian troops charging at Gallipoli.

Freedman outlines the story of the war in 15 chapters beginning with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie through a concluding chapter that reflected on the short life of the peace that was brokered to end the war. The beginning of each chapter is set off on a grey background and "decorated" on the bottom with a drawing of treacherous barbed wire, a farming invention, adopted for use in modern warfare.

The Great War was not only huge in its scope, with two dozen countries choosing one side or the other, but in its casualties, nearly 20 million deaths, according to the introduction. It marked the beginning of modern warfare techniques employing new strategies and inventions, such as barbed wire, machine guns, airplanes and tanks.

The map of Europe was redrawn at the end of the war signifying the end of most of the empires and monarchies (all related in some way) that controlled the continent for many years. I found myself consulting these maps frequently as I read and occasionally wishing that they were bigger. I don't know if the art on these maps is final, but the two maps that illustrate the two fronts of the war demarcated the major war zones only by naming cities and rivers. I think an inset map placed in the chapters depicting some of the major battles would've been helpful. But this is such a minor quibble.

The power of this book lies not only conveying in the sheer enormity of the scale of the war, but also in the scale of the losses. Ten percent of the male population of France were lost. The dead of World War I was called "The Lost Generation." The reader is never allowed to forget the magnitude of the carnage because it is described in the narrative and featured in most of the pictures. This reader found herself taking in all the facts of a particular battle or strategy, then blindsided by a description that made the war painfully personal. Two examples - Freedman concludes his chapter on the Battle of the Somme with a quote from the diary of Second Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire. "Humanity is mad! It must be mad..." In the final paragraph, he reveals that Joubaire died the following day at the age of 21. The second example comes from one of the many photographs. On about pg. 110 of the arc, there is a photograph of a crew-member trying to escape a sinking ship that had been torpedoed by a German U-boat as a lifeboat is pulling away. It is a photograph of hopelessness - one of many, but one image that stuck. 

The project was a personal one for Freedman, as the book is dedicated to his father, Louis Nathan Freedman, who served in France in 1918. There's even a photograph of the sixteen-year-old (!) with two army buddies. 

Chapter notes and a selected bibliography were included in the arc, but picture credits and 8 pages of index were not.

Anything by Freedman is an automatic purchase for me, but this is certainly a must have, especially if your library, like mine needs updating in the World War I section. I had already placed Jim Murphy's newest book, Trenches in my school's book order for next school year. I notice that Ann Bausum, also an automatic purchase is releasing a book called, Unraveling Freedom in August.  

Thanks to Abby the Librarian for hosting today. She posted about the upcoming book (about bats) in the amazing Scientists in the Field series (that I love, love, love) and there are quite a few other titles of interest. That old TBR list just grows daily.
Tags: book a day challenge, informational, non-fiction monday, world war i

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