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Monday, January 11, 2016

Book Review: The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War edited by Hew Strachan

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War edited by Hew Strachan
Hardcover, 400 pages
Oxford University Press
May 19, 2014

Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Source: Personal purchase for my Masters class

World War I was a war of extraordinary intensity and one which has shaped the history of the 20th century. It was the first conflict in which aeroplanes, submarines and tanks played a significant role, the first in which casualties on the battlefield outnumbered those from disease. The USA's entry into the war and the part it played in the peace settlement signalled the arrival on the world stage of a new great power. The victors at Versailles took nationalism as one of their guiding principles; they also aimed at instituting their vision of liberalism and even democracy; the political consequences are still being played out.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War edited by Hew Strachan is an excellent overview work on World War I. For anyone looking to pick up one book and get some solid information about a majority of the aspects of the war, they will find it here; from the different battlefronts, to war origins, the role of women, propaganda, to peace settlements and more. This is a first-rate resource for anyone who might be new to the subject area or just to serve as a refresher for a seasoned historian.

The dual strengths of this book are its brevity and its contributors. Typically I find the brevity of books on one specific subject to be a hindrance to my understanding of said topic. In the case of The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War it strikes the perfect balance between spending enough time covering the important topics while not allowing the flow to become bogged down in number/fact regurgitation. Here you will not find endless lists of troop strengths and numbers of field artillery pieces owned. What you will find are topics of import and interest. It explores more than just the battlefield experience of the primary theatres of war, but encompasses the periphery theatres as well.

Interspersed throughout the book on virtually every page are photos, drawings, and maps that relate to the subject matter being discussed within those pages. This layout makes the images much more relevant to the reader. The only thing worse than no images within a book of this type are images that are placed in the center of the book without the benefit of the context of the writing. Laid out this way the images do no break up the flow of the text, but enhance the reading experience.

The contributors to this book appear as a sort of all-star lineup. Many of these chapter contributors are major historians within their field; I’m not just taking the word of the publisher’s description, I did a little bit of my own research. To take a cross-section of the contributors: Holger Afflerbach (writing on “The Strategy of the Central Powers, 1914-1917”) is a historian of both World Wars with a specialized focus on Central European history; David French (writing on “The Strategy of the Entente Powers, 1914-1917”) is a British military historian with a specialization on the late nineteenth century; and Susan R. Grayzel (writing on “The Role of Women in the War”) is a director of women’s studies and has researched extensively within that field. That is just three of the twenty-four contributors to this book. To put it frankly, they appear to be quite knowledgeable within their fields and it is wonderful to see these specialists contributing to a compilation work.

While I did not pinpoint any areas in this book that I would raise as a negative issue, I did encounter one element that made me stop and think about the topic deeper. Both of these elements actually refer back to the previous discussion on the contributors. When I opened to the chapter on the female experience in the war and saw that the section was penned by a woman, my initial reactions were mixed. From my count, there are only two female contributors to this book, and one of those wrote the chapter on women. Was this because the editor felt that a female would better portray the female experience and be more credible to the reader because of her gender? Was this because women are more knowledgeable about the history of their own gender? Did a man not want to write about women’s history because it might be viewed as “lesser” history in the grand scheme of the war? All of these questions flew through my head before I had even read the first sentence. These questions led me to research this historian and now I can see the likely reasons why she was chosen as a contributor; she has a lengthy experience with women’s history. However, if I asked these questions, it is likely others will too – and they might go with a gender biased opinion. Overall, I found the chapter to be well written and encompassing the majority of the wartime experiences of women across the theatres involved.

This installment in the Oxford Illustrated series is exactly what I have come to expect from them (and I have read a few of the books in that collection) and they have yet to let me down with their publications. Of all of the books I have read on the subject of the First World War this was the easiest to read and understand and relatively enjoyable to read.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

Also in the Oxford Illustrated History Series:

A collection of lavishly illustrated single-volume histories, Oxford Illustrated Histories present well-documented chronologies on topics like Britain, theater, Greece, opera, English literature, modern Europe, and more. Each history includes color and black and white illustrations, as well as photographs, and is compiled by a taskforce of leading scholars in its respective field of interest. These titles are ideal for any casual reader and also, because of the scholarship, serve as companions to any budding researcher's reference collection.
The Oxford Illustrated History of Ancient Egypt

The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain

The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity

The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature

The Oxford Illustrated History of Greece and the Hellenistic World

The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England

The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe

The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe
The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand
The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera
The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe
The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible
The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings

The Oxford Illustrated History of World War II


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