Book of the Month: January

It’s time for another one of our book reviews. This month’s review was written by our Chairman, Malcolm Noble, as a special feature to launch our Education Programme’s Book Reviews for 2021.

Stories of The First World War with a foreword by Dan Snow.

Dan Snow tells us why this book is such a valuable resource for young people. In his Foreword, he explains how the war ‘changed Britain and the World.’ There are 52 separate stories which give an account of how the war affected those who fought in it including, civilians, adults and children, and even animals, who all played their part.

Taken together the stories describe the course of the conflict from first to last. It is aimed at children in both primary and secondary schools. Hence the book’s style, with short paragraphs interspersed with images of war, quotations individual participants. A nice feature is the conversation kept up throughout much of the books by the two rats Fifi and Gaston. Rats, of course, playing such a prominent part of life in the trenches.

The authors are faced with the difficulty of getting young people to understand how it was that the assassination of the Austrian Archduke led inexorably to war between the Great Powers. The authors solve this problem in a very clever way. This involves dividing the section into four separate parts. The first starts with the formation of the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. It goes on to describe the sequence events from the assassination of the Austrian Archduke on 28th June 1914 to the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia on 28th July.

Then there are the two linked luggage labels. The first tells how Germany intended to over- run France in the west with overwhelming force before Russia could mobile its armies in the East. The second label points out the necessity for Germany to defeat France in less than six weeks. The map that follows on from the labels shows how Germany and Austria-Hungary faced having to fight a war on. Two fronts. The photo below shows the spot where the First War started, as Austro-Hungarian artillery fired on the Serbian capital Belgrade.

From this point onwards the book is thematic and not chronological. The next two pages list a series of seemingly unrelated responses to war. These include conscription, attitudes to enemy aliens and an international conference to oppose the war. Then we are taken to six of the major battles. This included the naval battle at Jutland. They are described in separate boxes, each with a relatively brief explanation accompanied by an image illustrating the event. The images though disappoint, notably the quite incomprehensible map of German lines at Mons.

Following this there are three sections demonstrating how this war was fought like no other, before or after. There are details of a British soldier’s uniform and equipment, the types of guns, the use of poison gas and the place of women at the front. New features were the introduction of tanks, the war in the air and heavy artillery. These represented the innovations that are now familiar forms of modern warfare. Aircraft were used initially for reconnaissance only.

Aerial warfare developed as planes were fitted with machine guns and later bombs. Tanks were used first during the Battle of the Somme but it was at the battle of Cambrai on 20th November 1917, that they were used on a large scale. However, it was heavy artillery, able to destroy trenches and field fortifications, that accounted for more casualties than any other weapon.

Sections on women at the front and on wartime work emphasise the importance of women to the war effort. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) had enrolled 40,000 women by 1918. Apparently, the contribution of WAACS enable 12,000 non-combatant soldiers to return to front line service. Availability of women proved critical in the production of munitions. Unfortunately, there is no adequate description of the layout and conditions of trench warfare.

Great Britain entered the war in response to the German invasion of Belgium.  A British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent over to Belgium and France immediately. Lord Kitchener, a senior soldier and Consul-General in Egypt,

Initiated a famously successful campaign to recruit volunteers for the forces. Between August 1914 and December 1915, nearly 2.5 million men had joined the British Army voluntarily.

The British Empire entered the war at the outset. There are sections on the involvement of the home countries Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Sections on the British Empire covered the Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This was followed by references to the crown dependencies the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

From this point, there are accounts showing how the war expanded from a conflict among the European powers, to become recognisably a world war. There are sections on war in Africa and in the Middle East. In the latter case. Involving the Ottoman Empire. One section describes the crises posed for Great Britain, by the Easter 1916 rising in Ireland.

The section entitled the Hundred Days Offensive tells how the armistice came about on 11 November 1918. The Russian Revolution had led to the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, bringing an end to the war in the East. The German General Ludendorff brought nearly 50 Divisions troops, from the Russian Front, to reinforce his armies on the Western Front. On the 21st March they launched a series of offensives beginning with Operation Michael, hoping to defeat the French and British before the Americans arrived in large numbers. However, after initial successes, the offensives failed to meet their objectives.

On 24th July, Marshal Foch, now overall commander of the allies, ordered a counter-attack. This occurred at Amiens on 8th August under the command of the British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Aided by about 480 tanks, the allies quickly broke through the German lines leading to what Ludendorff described as the Black Day of the German Army. On 24th September the Americans attacked on the Meuse-Argonne, while on the 29th the British broke through the Hindenburg Line. The British under General Allenby defeated the Ottoman Turkish Army at Megiddo on 25th September. The Italians achieved a long-awaited victory over the Austro-Hungarians at Vittoria-Veneto on 24th October.

At 10.00 am on 11th November 1918, Canadian forces entered Mons, the Belgian town where the British Expeditionary Force had been forced into a retreat, four years earlier at the start of the war. At 11.00 am on that day, the fighting ended on all fronts. The war though was not yet over. The negotiations leading to the Treaty of Versailles took a further six months. A section on Homecoming covered return of the troops to their homes. On Armistice Day, the British Army numbered 3.8 million men. Some, returning home became victims of the influenza pandemic that had broken out in the summer of 1918.

The sections on media and propaganda, arts, sports and music provide a useful insight into life and society in Great Britain over four years of war and afterwards. There are four sections devoted to poets and poetry. A positive legacy of the First World War is the range and quality inspired by the conflict. There is an obvious contrast between poems such as Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier and Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. In the first case, Rupert Brooke expresses the patriotic feeling common early in the war. Wilfred Owen describes the horrors of gas attacks on the trenches. Sections on the Home Front included detail on efforts to ensure that children understood the importance of the war effort and on the Tribunals that dealt with conscientious objectors refusing compulsory military service.

Sections on the legacies of the First World War are particularly well presented, covering medical advances, the impact of the naval blockade on Germany and war graves. The heavy and unprecedented casualty rates necessitated advances in medical treatments.  New methods of blood transfusion, treatment of gas wounds and an improved nursing service were examples. Shell shock, resulting from conditions in the trenches, was documented officially for the first time.  The Royal Navy had blockaded German ports from the start of the war. The resultant shortages of food and supplies eventually undermined support for the war. The most visible legacy of the war was the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. To this day they are tending the graves of those killed in action across the globe.

This photo was taken at the spot where Austro-Hungarian guns fired the first shots of the war. They aimed across the river Sava at the Belgrade Fortress opposite.

Overall, the text in most boxes is informative. With support from Teachers or Teaching Assistants, the stories may be well understood by both primary and secondary children. However, there are no tasks and few questions set. To assist children get the best out of it, they will need to be shown what to do with the information provided, section by section. Fortunately, the writers avoid the use of myths about the war, such as those. To be found in the film O What a Lovely War or the television comedy Blackadder Goes Forth.

The book will be a useful resource for classrooms and school libraries. If there is to be a revised edition, many of the images could be replaced by photographs that illustrate the points from the relevant text. A new section could be added usefully, on trench layout and conditions.