Top Books: The First World War

Fought between 1914 - 1918, World War I transformed European politics, economy, culture and society. Countries from across the world battled in a conflict now largely remembered for waste and loss of life instead of any real achievement. This list contains the best volumes for the interested reader.

Keegan's book has become a modern day classic, representing by far the most popular view of the Great War: a bloody and futile conflict, fought in chaos, causing the unnecessary death of millions. Three concentrations of black and white photographs and a selection of quality maps accompany a superbly written narrative which expertly guides the reader through a complex period.

Stevenson tackles vital elements of the war missing from more military accounts, and if you only read one breakdown of the financial situation affecting Britain and France (and how the US helped before they declared war), make it the relevant chapter here. It's a good addition to Keegan.

Recommended by several University lecturers - and now myself - as the best single-volume introduction for students, this is a relatively small, and thus more easily digested, volume which should be easily affordable. A superb overall account of events, with enough bite to keep Great War experts interested.

Clark has won awards for his work on German history, and here he tackles in great detail the start of the First World War. His volume debates how the war began, and by refusing to simply blame Germany - instead seeking reasons which draw in all of Europe - has been accused of bias. Read for the argument and join the debate, or find this excellent history convincing.

This award-winning volume looks at the whole of the First World War through the eyes of the what are, in too many English language books, the vague and evil other side. That’s not true of course, and this book refocused the popular discussion.

 

This is a good English language book on the 'other' side of the war: Germany and Austria-Hungary. It used to be the best, but thankfully the subject is getting more attention now.

The culture which surrounded the World War One was rich and can provide plentiful reading, but its the poetry which has set the tone for decades. This is an excellent compilation of poetry about the war.

Not a book focused on Europe, but on how Europeans destroyed the old Middle Eastern order and failed to replace it with stability. This is a quality popular history on another often overlooked topic.

 

Although not enough for a study in itself, this quality book will accompany any discussion of the First World War, whether you want a few extra figures for an essay, or a ready-reference for your book. Facts, figures, summaries, definitions, timelines, chronologies - there is a wealth of information here.

John Keegan's view of the Great War has opposition, and Gary Sheffield's revisionist work offers an entirely different view of the conflict. Sheffield argues that the Great War was entirely necessary in stopping military imperialism, a view that has angered many readers and is one I am increasingly moving away from. Read this book and enter a debate!

There are a lot of books on the Somme published for the hundredth anniversary, so I’m only picking the best of the ones I’ve read and you might want to shop around. But MacDonald’s is a classic work which will need something twice the size to improve on. Touching, informative, newly repackaged and can be had very cheap.

 

This is an older volume, but still a great one about one of the most cynical decisions made in a very cynical war, and how it went very wrong for the initiators (and little better for the defenders). There are a few things in this book you wouldn’t write now, such as stereotypes, but its otherwise excellent.

 

The battle which did more than anything else to make the British picture World War I as a pointless fumbling in mud (because that’s basically what happened) is treated with due care by MacDonald.

 

This recent book is a balanced and fair examination of an event often clouded by partisanship and remembered in the British national consciousness as a massive mistake. Crucially, Carlyon isn't afraid to point out how all nations on the allied sides made mistakes.

So many English language books focus on the Western Front that it's worth reading a book dedicated to the massive events of the east. Root's is the best, treating the theater with the detail and the balance it needs.

Although a truly excellent new examination of events, with many revealing facts and interpretations, the contents of this volume don't progress beyond 1914. By the time Strachan has finished his projected three-part work it may be the dominant modern text, but I can't recommend it any higher yet.

This collection of eyewitness accounts, taken from many areas across the Western Front, certainly isn't pleasurable reading, but it will augment your knowledge of the conflict.