You should never judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a book about the First World War on how it begins. If it starts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, by a Bosnian nationalist in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, then you can safely predict that you're in for an undemanding trawl over familiar territory. Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior make no such glib assertions. Instead they offer a variety of historical explanations. They debate the failure of the old diplomacy and the Leninist thesis of the imperatives of advanced capitalism. They even give air time to the vaguely Jungian notion that the war was caused by the mounting alienation and psychological disturbance of the masses consequent upon the vagaries of the trade cycle and the sense of powerlessness engendered by industrialisation. All these theses are of interest, but are ultimately found wanting. Yet the fact that the authors are prepared to entertain them, to indulge them even, makes for a much more interesting and textured read.
Historical cause and effect is seldom linear and seldom obvious. It usually relies on a coming together of a political and public will, with a healthy smattering of coincidence thrown in. The war actually began in August 1914 when Germany invaded Belgium; but if Belgium hadn't fought back, would there have been a war? Prior and Wilson make a good case for suggesting that there would. Whatever else was going on in Europe in the early years of the 20th century, you could not ignore German aggression. Germany kept pushing and pushing its allies until eventually someone was bound to say enough was enough. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was just another lever to ratchet up the political tension. And sure enough the Russians decided that the German-inspired Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was tantamount to a declaration of war on itself. The invasion of Belgium was merely the coup de grace that secured the involvement of Britain and France. The authors are equally good on the main set pieces. Somme, Ypres and Verdun are all given the same level of analysis, and the less celebrated theatres of war--Gallipoli and the Italian campaign--are not ignored either. Given that this book is little more than 200 pages long and lavishly illustrated with detailed maps and hundreds of photographs, this is a considerable achievement. As a short, sharp introduction to the Great War that neither patronises nor complicates, it is hard to beat. --JohnCrace
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The complete history of the First World War written by two leading experts in the field.