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The War to End All Wars by Russell Freedman

July 13, 2010

Combining an informative, eloquently written text with a wealth of relevant photographs, Russell Freedman’s The War to End All Wars is a magnificent overview of World War I.

The scope of The War to End All Wars is wide, but there’s a logical progression to the way Freedman lays out information. Beginning with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the alliances and rivalries among various European countries in 1914, Freedman discusses the chain of events that led to the war in an engaging style that is both elegant and authoritative. It is not stuffy or bland, and the narrative is written with enough clarity that there is no need for sidebars or extraneous text boxes to explain or emphasize details.

And so Europe was caught up in a war that few had expected and almost no one wanted. Even today, historians continue to debate the tangled and confusing causes of the conflict, the series of accidents, blunders, and misunderstandings that swept the nations of Europe toward war in the summer of 1914, whether war might have been avoided, and which persons or nations were most responsible. Wars in the past had often been caused by countries seeking more land or natural resources, or acting out of suspicion and fear of their rivals. And once a country is fully armed and poised to attack, war, it seems, is hard to avoid.

The events that unfolded as Europe careened toward catastrophe appeared to defy logic and common sense. Austria had wanted to punish Serbia, and then, one by one, other nations were drawn into the quarrel. To support Austria in its conflict with Russia over Serbia, Germany had attacked France by invading Belgium. And Britain had declared a state of war throughout the vast British Empire. In the rush of events, the Kingdom of Serbia, supposedly the cause of the war, had almost been forgotten.

Each nation believed that it was fighting a defensive war forced upon it by someone else. And each army was convinced that it could defeat its enemies within a few months and that the troops would be home by Christmas. (p. 18-19 of ARC; text may change upon publication)

In addition to examining the important battles of the war, Freedman discusses some of the technological advances—both leading up to and during the war—that distinguished World War I from previous wars, as well as their impact on the grimness of trench warfare. This helps add context to the coverage of the fighting, particularly important because of how Freedman beautifully integrates first person accounts from rulers and diplomats and, most of all, soldiers into his narrative. These quotes, affecting and mournful and tragic (just one brief example, from a longer journal entry by Henri Desagneaux, a French lieutenant: “Our heads are buzzing, we have had enough…. Numb and dazed, without saying a word, and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us.” p. 89 of ARC), give The War to End All Wars additional depth and readers an intimate glimpse at what the war was like for those involved in it. Freedman concludes his narrative with a look at the end of the war and how it set the stage for World War II, among other things.

Although Freedman packs a considerable amount of information into the text, there are some omissions that were obvious even to me, someone who has probably picked up more information about World War I from historical mysteries than can I recall from AP European History. More attention is paid to the Western Front than the Eastern Front, and because Freedman spent some time covering the mood on the homefront at the start of the war, I was surprised that he did not revisit this topic as the war went on. Nevertheless, these are minor criticisms overall. As this is a relatively brief overview of the war with numerous visual elements, it would be impossible for Freedman to discuss all aspects of the war in enough detail for the reader to have a reasonable understanding of everything in the space given.

As far as the design of The War to End All Wars, this is one of those books where not paying attention to it as you read is a compliment. Many visual elements (mostly photographs but also a few maps) are featured throughout the book, and the photo size and placement enhances the flow of the text. Back matter includes source notes, a selected bibliography, and an index (not seen in the ARC).

The War to End All Wars will be published on August 2. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Printz committee honored it somehow, and I think it is a lock for YALSA’s non-fiction award shortlist.

Book source: ARC from publisher.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2010 2:54 am

    Love your review. Coincidentally, I wrote about it yesterday on my blog. I hadn’t thought about the home front though. Good point. Ann Bausam’s upcoming book is all about the home front. Have you read Crossing Stones by Helen Frost?

    Brenda

    • July 13, 2010 11:11 am

      Thanks for mentioning your review; I hadn’t read it before but love it, especially how you wrote *about* the war itself (in other words, a lot more than I did). I didn’t know that Ann Bausum has a book coming out about the homefront, so thanks for letting me know. And, no, I haven’t read Crossing Stones. I did enjoy Remembrance by Theresa Breslin, though it’s been a while since I’ve read it.

  2. challengingthebookworm permalink
    July 17, 2010 4:54 pm

    I’ve been hearing a LOT of buzz about this book, and I’m so jealous that you got an advanced copy to look at. It sounds like yet another excellent contribution by Russell Freedman

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