A flatlay of book covers about the First World War against an olive green background.

Known at the time as The Great War, and shortly “the war to end all wars”, the First World War was one of the deadliest conflicts in history, resulting in over 20 million soldier and civilians died worldwide, and in the process reshaping the political, cultural, economic, and social facts of the newly global world.

Despite the sheer amount written about the war – and the fact that it now happened a full century ago – scholars continue to this day to unearth new facts, figures and theories about the war, its lead-up and aftermath, and the roles that soldiers, generals and civilians all played, in new and fascinating books and essays.

In his new book The Western Front, for example, author and Professor of Modern Warfare at King’s College London Nick Lloyd does just that, integrating deep, well-research scholarship (including overlooked first-person accounts and archival material) with careful analysis and compelling readability to redefine our perception of the First World War from one of “mud, blood and futility” to one that harboured unprecedented innovation.

Here, we asked Nick to use his expertise to round up a selection of the very best non-fiction on the subject, to satisfy newbies and world war buffs alike.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (2013)

Beginning with the murder of the Serbian Royal Family in 1903, Christopher Clark’s wide-ranging and provocative survey of the origins of the First World War is a must-read. Attracting much interest when it was first published because of its defence of Germany and Austria-Hungary, Clark’s detailed account offers a full perspective on how the war broke out, and offers compelling portraits of all the key players from across Europe and the Balkans. While its conclusions have been questioned, it is unmatched as a work of sustained inquiry and revisionism.

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962)

Tuchman’s survey of the opening month of the war, particularly its nerve-shredding account of the German march through Belgium and France, remains as fresh today as when it was first written in 1962. It places the reader squarely alongside the generals and their footsore, exhausted soldiers as they geared up to fight the First Battle of the Marne. A classic of narrative history.

The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923 by Sean McMeekin (2015)

Sean McMeekin has made numerous contributions to the history of the First World War, particularly in reconsidering the role played by Russia in its outbreak – as well as his brilliant work on the Berlin-Baghdad Railway – but The Ottoman Endgame is his masterpiece. Well-written, highly original, and engrossing from the first to last pages, McMeekin looks at the Ottoman Empire before, during, and after the war, and traces what he calls “the war of Ottoman Succession”.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Geoffrey Wawro (2014)

Geoffrey Wawro’s explosive study of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its road to the “mad catastrophe” of 1914 became an instant classic when it was published for the centenary. Delving into the “dark heart” of Vienna, Wawro shows how it goaded Serbia and Russia into war, before tracing the wavering fortunes of the Royal and Imperial Army as it faced off against two strong opponents and, ultimately, nearly collapsed after just three months of fighting.

The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl by Alexander Watson (Penguin 2019)

For so long, the Eastern Front had remained obscure and unfamiliar to English-language readers (for whom the Western Front is the First World War). Alexander Watson’s original and compelling study of the fight for the city of Przemyśl in what was then Galicia (and is now southern Poland) in 1914 and 1915 is an epic. Watson takes the reader through the siege of the great fortress and the experience of its garrison as it endured what became “the Verdun of the Eastern Front”. Combining original archive study with a real feel for the conditions at the front, this is a wonderful insight into a forgotten epic.

The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson (2009)

A stunning, lyrical portrait of the Italian Front. Mark Thompson’s White War offers an unrivalled insight into the oft-forgotten war in north-east Italy that took place in some of the most inhospitable and difficult locations in the history of warfare. Full of memorable characters, from the ruthless General Luigi Cadorna and Ernest Hemingway to the proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, this account shows us what happened when Italy joined the First World War and fought so hard for a victory that was, in the end, a “mutilated” one that would poison her body politic for generations.

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne (1962)

Alistair Horne’s complex and richly textured narrative of the Franco-German struggle at Verdun in 1916 remains one of the most readable and compelling works of military history ever written. Horne’s great gift is to explain the decision-making process (of both sides) with great clarity, bringing to life a host of key characters and showing how they grappled with a battle of such enormity and horror. Part of Horne’s trilogy on the history of France, The Price of Glory is military history of the highest order.

The First World War, Volume One: To Arms by Hew Strachan (2001)

The first volume of a planned trilogy on the history of the First World War, Strachan’s To Arms is a monumental work of scholarship and synthesis. Covering (amongst other things) the origins of the war, the fighting in 1914, and the conflict in Africa, this account is based upon an enormous range of sources from multiple languages and spans almost 1,200 pages of text. A stimulating and engrossing, albeit unfinished work.

The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command by Andrew Gordon (1996)

In this classic work of naval history, Andrew Gordon examines the history of the Battle of Jutland (1916), the great naval action between the British and German fleets. Jutland may have ended in a narrow British victory, but it spawned an entire industry devoted to why the grand, decisive victory at sea had remained elusive. Gordon deconstructs the deep history of the battle and the root cause of the difficulties at Jutland – particularly the rigid system of tactical command that the Royal Navy adopted in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. This is narrative history in the grand style, brimming with ideas and insights into how navies fight and how they understand and sometimes challenge “the rules of the game”.

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan (2001)

Although not strictly about the war itself, Margaret MacMillan’s stirring study of the conference at Versailles in 1919, originally titled Peacemakers, is an essential read. Vivid portraits of President Wilson, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau are at the heart of his detailed narrative about how the “war to end all wars” was brought to a fitting conclusion. Importantly, she does not subscribe to the simplistic myth of the “Carthaginian peace” at Versailles that has become so central to popular memory, and offers a challenging reassessment of an ultimately flawed piece of diplomatic and political manoeuvring.

Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War by Stephen Bourne (2014)

The First World War happened at the same time that social Darwinian concepts like racial purity were in ascendancy. Yet, both Britain and France relied heavily on assistance from Black soldiers: the French sent out Tukulor, Wolof, Serer and Bambara forces under the impression that they would be more “naturally warlike”, while the British sent out Caribbean Brits (not to mention Indian troops); their services went largely unacknowledged, and they returned (if they did) to racism as deeply entrenched as it was before the war. Hailed by author Bernardine Evaristo as “a powerful, revelatory counterbalance to the whitewashing of British history”, Black Poppies is a must-read.


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  • The Western Front

  • A SUNDAY TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR
    A TELEGRAPH BOOK OF THE YEAR

    'A
    tour de force of scholarship, analysis and narration . . . Lloyd is well on the way to writing a definitive history of the First World War' Lawrence James, The Times

    'This well-researched, well-written and cogently argued new analysis . . . will undoubtedly now take its rightful place as the standard account of this vital theatre of the conflict' Andrew Roberts, author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny
    _________________

    In the annals of military history, the Western Front stands as an enduring symbol of the folly and futility of war.

    However, as bestselling military historian Nick Lloyd reveals in this highly-praised history - the first of an epic trilogy -- the story is not one of pointlessness and stupidity, but rather a heroic triumph against the odds. With a cast of hundreds and a huge canvas of places and events, Lloyd tells the whole tale, revealing what happened in France and Belgium between August 1914 and November 1918 from the perspective of all the main combatants - including French, British, Belgian, US and, most importantly, German forces.

    Lloyd examines the most decisive campaigns of the Great War and explains the unprecedented innovation, adaptation and tactical development that have been too long obscured by legends of mud, blood and futility, drawing upon the latest scholarship on the war, wrongly overlooked first-person accounts, and archival material from every angle. Conveying the visceral assault of the battlefield with vivid detail, Lloyd ultimately redefines our understanding of a crucial theatre in this monumental tragedy.
    _________________

    'Excellent on detail . . . Lloyd's book will be cherished by military history buffs' Max Hastings, Sunday Times

    'It is the best modern single-volume history of war on the Western Front and is likely to remain the standard account for some time' Jonathan Boff, The Spectator

  • Buy the book

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