A war not destined to be the last

October 2, 2010

Russell Freedman’s The War to End All Wars is published as history for young readers, but it’s also perfect for adults. Filled with battlefield photos from news agencies, national libraries and museum archives, it tells a concise history of World War I– from the political murder in Sarajevo, through the Battles of Verdun and the Somme and the entrance of the Americans, to the collapse of the German army. It’s easy and interesting to read. There’s no slogging through what feels like a history book or a 500-page non-fiction doorstopper.

To get a preview of Freedman’s book, check out Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

I read the 176 pages slowly over several days, thinking about it in perspective of then and now. There’s not much change, other than present day diplomacy and weapons technology being more sophisticated. In 1914, European nations went to war with human folly as a partner.  It’s the same way we go to war now.

I knew the Great War started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, but I didn’t realize how rival European powers, already in an arms race, fueled the spark. They were nations at peace that had established an elaborate network of military alliances, in which one nation pledged to support another in the event of war. A chain reaction occurred so fast after the assassination that diplomacy didn’t have a chance. Six million soldiers marched across Europe the first weeks of August 1914. They thought they were entering into what European leaders were declaring would be a short-lived war.

Freedman thoughtfully explains and illustrates the tragic four-year reality that ended up mobilizing 65 million men. More than half became casualties. That is, killed or wounded or missing in action or taken prisoner. What makes Freedman’s history-telling alive and intimate beyond the dates, strategies and statistics are the letters and personal anecdotes from those who were there. 

Early in the book, we are reminded that armies at the time still relied on signal lamps and carrier pigeons to deliver messages. Later, there’s a story about a U.S. battalion trapped by Germans in the Argonne Forest.  Thinking they were attacking Germans, Americans rained a barrage of artillery on their isolated comrades. The trapped soldiers sent off a carrier pigeon with a note that informed the attacking Americans of the battalion’s location. It also said, “For heaven’s sake, stop it!”

Philip Caputo published a similar history book for all ages about the Vietnam War, 10,000 Days of Thunder, in 2005. It also explains war history in easy-to-read text and lots of photos, reminding us — as does Freedman’s book — that we never seem to carry forward what we’ve learned from past loss and destruction. Time moves on. Knowledge gets fuzzy. We go to war again.

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