The Best Books on World War I

By | Apr 06, 2017
Latest, World

By Eileen M. Lavine

Narratives and analyses of every aspect of World War I—its prequels, its beginnings, the merciless and horrible fighting on all fronts, its wide reach around the world, America’s entrance into the fighting, the plans for a future without war and the afterwords—all of these are catalogued here in a list of some of the numerous and varied volumes that appeared, especially in the centennial year of its onset. On the anniversary of the United States’ entrance into the war, here are some of those books—those marking the beginnings, the events of the Great War itself and some books on special areas of interest.

The Beginnings


The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman (Presidio, 1962)
The classic, Pulitzer-Prize winning 1962 book vividly describes the end of the Gilded Age and powerful royals with her view of unwanted decisions and accidents that led to the war. This is often paired with her The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914.

The War That Ended the Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret McMillan (Random House, 2014)
Covers the fall of the European alliances and the crises and clashes in the countries of the Concert of Europe that led to the war.

Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? by David Fromkin (Vintage, 2005)
Fromkin provides a different answer to the position of Tuchman and other historians, claiming that Germany’s army chief von Moltke and other officials in Berlin and Vienna deliberately instigated the war.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings  (Vintage, 2013)
A chronicle of the first months of the war, assigning blame primarily to Germany and Austria-Hungary, describes the early battles on the Western and Eastern Fronts, and maintains that Germany’s defeat was essential for Europe’s freedom.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (Harper Collins, 2013)
Clark uses new research focusing more on relationships between individuals and countries rather than battles, and showing how missed signals and misunderstandings on both sides moved the situation to war in just a few weeks.

July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914 by T.G. Otte (Cambridge University Press- 2014)
Shows how the near-collective failure of statecraft by the rulers of Europe was the cause of war, rather than the concepts of balance of power or the alliance system touted by earlier historians.

The Month That Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel  (Oxford University Press, 2014)
Goes back to contemporary diplomatic, military and political records to see what really happened in the five weeks after the assassination and stresses how the personalities of the top statesmen exacerbated the crisis and led to war.

Invasion 1914: The Schelieffen Plan to the Battle of the Marne: Before the trenches – the first battles of World War I by Ian Senior (Osprey, August 2014)
The Germans expected to knock the French out early but the battles deteriorated into defensive trench warfare that lasted four years.

July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin (Basic Books, 2014)
Describes how a small group of statesmen, in the month after the assassination, might have plotted to start a war which they thought would be short and definitive.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire by Geoffrey Wawro (Basic Books, 2014)
Explores the Eastern Front and how ill-trained and poorly equipped Austrian troops confronted Russians and Serbs.

The Great War


War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War by William Philpott (Overlook, 2014).
Reexamines the causes and lingering effects of the war, drawing on experiences of front-line soldiers, munitions workers, politicians and diplomats, and shows how U.S. support early in the war led to the country’s emergence on the world stage.

The First World War by Hew Strachan (Penguin, 2005)
One-volume work of three-volume comprehensive survey of the war on all fronts with detailed background of leaders.

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order by Adam Tooze  (Allen Lane, 2014)
Explores how the struggle for global mastery, including financial markets, shifted to the U.S., as empires collapsed and new nations sprang up. Goes from 1916 to the 1931 Depression.

The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War by Peter Hart (Oxford University Press, 2013)
Focuses on decisive engagements, problems of the commanders, strategic strengths and weaknesses, changing weapons and tactics, concentrating on Western and Eastern Fronts but also the war at sea and fighting in Mesopotamia and Palestine.

A World Undone: the Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer (Delacorte, 2006)
Readable one-volume history with background sub-chapters on side issues such as Lawrence of Arabia, the Serbs, the Armenian genocide, war poetry, etc.

The First World War: A Complete History by Martin Gilbert (Holt, 2002, orig. 1970)
For long, this book by the famous British historian was the basic text source, a chronology of events via individual recollections covering all major fronts.

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild (Mariner Books, 2001).
An investigative history concentrating on prevailing opinion with a focus on the dissenters in Britain, many of whom went to jail, as well as jingoists and intelligence agents.

The First World War by John Keegan  (Vintage, 2000).  
A military historian, Keegan presents a narrative of the military conflict, assailing the incompetence and ineptitude of the generals.

World War I: The Definitive Visual History by R.G. Grant (DK, 2014).
With illustrated timelines, detailed maps and personal accounts, this book was written by a historian and created by the publisher’s editorial and design team to chart the developments of the war from a global perspective.

Specialty Books


Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German-Jewish Consciousness by Steven Aschheim (University of Wisconsin Press, 1982, Revised 1999)
Traces the history of German-Jewish attitudes and stereotypical images toward Eastern European Jews and their consequences over the years.

The First World War in the Middle East by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (Hurst, 2014)
A military and social history of the clash of empires in the Dardanelles, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Persia and the Caucasus.

The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeekin (Penguin, 2011)
Maintains it was a war Russia wanted as a bid for control of the Balkans and Near East.

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, Oct. 2014).
Retells the war from the perspectives of the instigators and losers, of their leaders and the people, and how the war shattered states and left a poisonous legacy of suffering, race hatred and violence.

Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America by Howard Blum  (Harper, 2014).
True-life tale of German espionage in U.S. and the NYPD inspector who helped uncover the plot.

The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds (W.W. Norton, 2014).
Assesses the political, economic and social impact of the war by examining politics, diplomacy, economics, art and literature.

Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier (New York Review, 2014).
First published in French in 1930, now translated into English, this has been described as a savagely frank, terrifying novel-memoir.

The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924 by Bruno Cabanes (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Discusses how a new humanitarian front was born from total war.

The Great War at Sea by Lawrence Sondhaus (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
A major new naval history revealing the decisive contribution of the war at sea to Allied victory.

The Cambridge History of the First World War edited by Jay Winter (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Three volumes: 1) Global War, covering military history; 2) Political history and how different political systems responded; 3) Civil Society, covering social and cultural history, shifts in gender roles, refugees, minorities, religious beliefs, etc.

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