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WWI: Books for the anniversary of the Great War

A quiet moment in German trenches, between 1914

A quiet moment in German trenches, between 1914 and ca. 1915. Credit: Library of Congress

One hundred years ago this summer, Europe braced itself for war. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, set off a cascade of events as France, Great Britain, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary mobilized troops. By August -- in a summer still remembered for its lovely weather -- battles erupted across the continent. The German army invaded Belgium, then France, and brawled with Russia. Sides dug in; the trenches that scarred the landscape became one of the ghastly icons of the 20th century.

Some 8.5 million soldiers died fighting the First World War; millions more were wounded. Empires were swept way; new nations were born. The historical consequences were profound. As Tim Butcher observes in "The Trigger," his fascinating look at Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who gunned down Franz Ferdinand, "The Great War's power lies with the suspicion that its impact has yet to be fully understood."

Though the war has become synonymous with the Western Front, the conflict actually began in the east, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia for its alleged links to Princip. In "A Mad Catastrophe," military historian Geoffrey Wawro examines a less familiar dimension of the conflict. Wawro's book would be funny -- the author writes with a scathing wit about this ramshackle empire of Slavs, Poles, Ukrainians, Czechs, Slovaks and Magyars governed by the German-speaking Hapsburgs -- if the events he describes weren't so appalling. The Austro-Hungarian Army was poorly equipped and badly led, and its clashes with Russian and Serb forces in 1914 and 1915 were calamitous.

Things were no less grim on the Western Front. French and British armies threw themselves against resolute German troops in a series of offensives that gained little ground -- the most notorious being the Somme, where the British suffered more than 50,000 dead and wounded on July 1, 1916. Yet the Allies persevered and were able to defeat Germany.

How this happened is the subject of William Philpott's masterful, if dry, account, "War of Attrition." Philpott, a noted Western Front scholar, is ruthlessly unsentimental about all the blood that was spilled. Millions of men had to die to break an implacable foe, Philpott argues. "By the middle of 1915," he writes, "both sides accepted that the only way to conduct and win such a war was by mobilizing all society's resources and grinding down the enemy's capacity and will to fight a sustained war of attrition." Philpott shows how the British and French prevailed through superior management of men and munitions (American money was key).

For the front-line soldier, the First World War was harrowing. The war inspired a torrent of words, and the English war poets have earned a place in the literary canon for their brave, agonized eloquence about trench life. Max Egremont's "Some Desperate Glory" offers a series of biographical portraits of famed figures Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, as well as the lesser known Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney. Rosenberg wrote some of the finest poetry, collected here: "My eyes catch ruddy necks/Sturdily pressed back, -- /All a red brick moving glint./Like flaming pendulums, hands/Swing across the khaki -- /Mustard-coloured khaki -- /To the automatic feet." Egremont doesn't offer startling observations or profound criticism, but he is correct to note that the poetry "reflects individual experience rather than objective judgment."

Owen and Sassoon's work has been read as a protest against war, but this is too simplistic -- each was a decorated warrior who fought with distinction. They have become part of the war's murky mythology. In "The Long Shadow," Cambridge University historian David Reynolds examines the shifting perceptions of the conflict. He takes aim at the notion, in Britain, that the war was a futile waste. Reynolds' goal is "to offer a much-needed corrective to the narrowly Anglocentric conceptions of what the hell it was all about." If you want to fully understand the impact of the Great War, this admirable book is a fine place to start.

THE TRIGGER: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, by Tim Butcher. Grove Press, 326 pp., $26.

A MAD CATASTROPHE: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, by Geoffrey Wawro. Basic Books, 440 pp., $29.99.

WAR OF ATTRITION: Fighting the First World War, by William Philpott. The Overlook Press, 400 pp., $32.50.

SOME DESPERATE GLORY: The First World War the Poets Knew, by Max Egremont. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 337 pp., $28.

THE LONG SHADOW: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, by David Reynolds. W.W. Norton & Co., 514 pp., $32.50.

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