10 Great Books on World War One

Petain’s Order of the Day: Courage, we will defeat them.

The impact of the Great War is almost beyond our comprehension. Four great empires — the German, Austrian, Russian, and Ottoman — collapsed under the strains of the conflict. The United States emerged as the premier power for the first time in its history as a result of the war. Great Britain and France perhaps began their relative declines.

Some of the leading figures of the twentieth century played active roles in the war: Vladimir Lenin, Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, Philippe Petain, Charles de Gaulle, Adolf Hitler…The unforgettable experience of the war would affect the way each individual would respond to future events.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into the war as well as the centenary of the Russian revolutions that resulted from the Tsarist regime’s disastrous performance on the Eastern front.

I’ve found the war still resonates with modern readers, so I compiled a list of my ten favorite books on the subject.

1. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
This beautifully written classic covers the days preceding and following the outbreak of war. One reviewer said, “Its virtues are almost Thucydidean: intelligence, concision, weight detachment.” Tuchman is a writer, in addition to being a historian. Ordinary readers may want to start with this book.

2. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
This somewhat academic book shows how European monarchs, politicians, soldiers, and diplomats “walked toward danger in watchful, calculated steps.” The focus is on the July Crisis prior to the war. I wrote a review of the book here.

3. Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography by Robert Graves
A memoir by the great English writer, this book also provides a detailed account of what it was like to serve in the trenches. A joy to read — it’s very well-known and beloved in England.

4. The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne
One of the most comprehensive accounts of this important battle in the English language. Verdun was France’s last great victory and its impact on Europe was tremendous. I wrote a review on this book here.

5. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I by Alexander Watson
This one tells the story from the perspective of the two major Central Powers. Germany, in particular, is often demonized in the historiography of the war — Ring of Steel provides an alternative point of view. Here’s my review.

6. The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
One of my all-time favorite books. It’s somewhat quirky, however. The author says that the book’s subtitle, if it had one, would be “An Inquiry into the Curious Literariness of Real Life.” Essentially, he uses literature to help understand the experience of soldiers on the Western Front. It’s a masterpiece.

7. The Great War: 1914–1918 by Marc Ferro
A concise account of the entire war. I’ve found this book essential for thinking about the conflict as a whole. Lots of interesting details here, too.

8. The World Crisis, Vol. 1 by Winston Churchill
Churchill wrote a five-volume account of the Great War and its aftermath. I think the first volume, which focuses on the beginning of the war, is the best. He writes with passion and clarity and of course, was an active participant in many of the key events.

9. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891–1924 by Orlando Figes
This is a magnificent book that covers an epic subject. Figes is quite good at showing how these events affected the Russian peasantry who made up the overwhelming majority of Russians at the time. It’s really not possible to overestimate the catastrophe in Russia brought on by the war and subsequent revolutions.

10. The Deluge by Adam Tooze
This one is perhaps the most challenging to read on the list, but it’s well worth the effort. Tooze discusses the rise of the United States to world power status and what that meant during the war and its aftermath. Throughout, he provides excellent discussions of Wilson, Trotsky, and Hitler.