I finally finished Hew Strachan’s The First World War, perhaps the best one volume treatment of the war I’ve read. Strachan’s work was the basis of an excellent 10 part documentary produced by the BBC a few years ago. The Military Channel runs it from time to time and it’s tone and approach are a marked contrast to most of what’s on that channel. I got a season pass for the series on Tivo and ended up watching the whole thing twice over. The book is a companion to the series and its ten chapters follow the pattern set by the documentary. What I like about Strachan is that he really tries to cut through the propaganda and challenge the accepted truths about the Great War. He also covers all theaters of the war, instead of concentrating on trench warfare of the Western Front as many histories do. You really get the big picture and a sense of how the war aims of the various countries affected their strategies in different parts of the world. My only serious disagreement with Strachan is with his assessment of the Treaty Versailles. He asserts that the real problem with the treaty was not its terms, but the Entente’s unwillingness to enforce them in the 20s and 30s. I think that treaty is a classic case of victor’s vengeance and many problems we still deal with today have their root in its short-sightedness. Still and all, both book and documentary are well worth checking out.
I also watched Ken Burns’ The War documentary recently, and that was quite excellent. It tells the story of America in WWII through the experiences of four towns spread across the country. As with Strachan’s work, The War tries to dispel some myths (like that American soldiers never shot prisoners). Nor does it shy away from showing some harsh footage, the types of images the government kept far away from the home front during the war itself. I got the companion book over the weekend, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (it’s too big and cumbersome to take on the bus, where I read most of The First World War, so that ones for home I guess). I did laugh every time I heard, “Funding for The War provided by…” but that’s PBS for you. All in all The War is another feather in Burns’ hat and a worthy successor to the Civil War. In fact, it’s better in some ways because he was able to interview living people, many of whom were only now willing to talk about their wartimes experiences.