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on 4 January 2009
If you think that the European powers stumbled into the Great War by accident; that the generals were numbskulls who learned nothing from the slaughter on the Somme or at Verdun; or that the sudden collapse of Germany in 1918 owed little to British and French efforts, then read this book and think again.

This is a superb history of World War One, clearly written and comprehensive in its scope. Stevenson is clear that the origins of the war were not accidental. Politicians on both sides had choices and they chose war or the threat of war as preferable to the alternatives. In particular Austria-Hungary and Germany wanted a war in the Balkans and were willing to risk its escalation into a general European war.

This isn't a purely military history, although there are enough military details to understand why in the central years of the war defence usually prevailed over attack and neither side was able to achieve a decisive breakthrough on the Western Front. Stephenson shows how military tactics evolved on both sides and while the new weapons of tanks, gas and aircraft played a part, the decisive innovations were in the co-ordination of artillery with infantry.

Stevenson shows how the Allies were able to mobilise their greater economic resources and enforce the blockade of Germany and translate these into a military superiority that was able to absorb the Ludendorff offensives in early 1918 and then break the German resistance in Flanders. In this, the repeated willingness of Germany to risk all on further military initiatives brought about its own defeat. The decision to adopt unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 brought the USA into the war. The 1918 offensives broke the German army while ultimately failing to break the Allies.

This is an impressive book that changed my views on the origins and conduct of the war.
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on 28 February 2006
I thought this a magnificent book. Its 600 pages are written in crystal clear English, covering the political, economic and military aspects of the War. The major campaigns of this global conflict are all well described, as is life on the home fronts of the Allies and the Central Powers. The origins are well described, while the chapters on the aftermath are particularly helpful. I recommend it strongly to those wishing to read a comprehensive history of the conflict for the first time, while those who have read other works on the War will find many new perspectives here. This book is superb value.
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on 10 August 2008
This was the first serious book on WWI that I read. It should be made clear, as I think another reviewer bemoans, that this is not a chronological military history, but rather a 'meta'-historical account that examines the war from various perspectives running orthogonal to the timeline. So we come to understand the social, economic, industrial and political dimensions of the war.

I give it five stars because it exploded so many of the pre-conceptions I had held about the war. In the 60s & 70s when I was doing my O-level history at school the wisdom imparted was that WWI was a misery inflicted upon the masses by an uncaring ruling class. I now understand that none of the belligerent populations (with the complex exception of Russia) would have tolerated capitulation by their governments. I learned how Lloyd George as minister of munitions transformed Britain's munitions industry (that was making more duds than effectives) from a haphazard and rather ineffectual club of gentleman industrialists into a unified system of mass production that put Britain back into the fight. We learn about decisive technological and strategic failures and the decisive strategic and technological successes.

One of the most interesting chapters is the final one that deals with the history of Germany's war guilt. Once more the wisdom taught in my schooldays was that Germany was the unequivocal villain in the whole tragedy. But we find in this chapter that there was a long and complex story that lead up to Germany accepting this mantle that was actually encouraged by its more straightforward culpability for WWII. And that the story might yet take another twist as modern Germany starts to examine the origins afresh.

One thing I must say is that I now have read several detailed accounts of the beginnings of the war and how it escalated from the assasination of Archduke Ferdinand, and there are as many interpretations of what happened and where the blame lies, as there are accounts. Counterfactual aguments abound - if Russia had not mobilised so early against Austro-Hungary, and so on, and most controversially perhaps, would it truly have just been a replay of the Franco-Prussion war and over by Christmas if Lord Grey had not committed Britain to the fray. So, caveat emptor, take no single account of the origins of the war as definitive. I think it was Hugh Trevor-Roper that said that the final cause of WWI was that an intricate system of checks and balances that had given general peace in Europe for a hundred years, just suddenly went off the rails, as it was sooner or later bound to do. In the end it was everybody's fault and nobody's.
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on 9 August 2008
It's hard work reading this book. It's over 600 closely-typed pages long and it can be daunting to turn a page and be met with such dense text and hardly a break. However, I found myself engrossed nearly all the time.

As other reviewers have mentioned, this books deals witht the war mainly at a strategic and political level. It's not always easy to follow and I could have easily gone back and re-read bits a few times, but I decided not to do that. Having finished the book, I may have trouble recalling parts in detail for example, what Ludendorff and Hindenburg's titles were, and I'd have to look them up in the index and re-read, but I also feel that I've learnt a significant amount about this war. I feel well-placed now to either read other books, re-read this book, view DVDs or read about the Second World War.

The First World War was a collosal event and I'm sure reading one book doesn't do it justice but there is no doubt in my mind that my understanding has taken a leap forward!
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on 2 January 2009
1914-1918: The History of the First World War

I bought this book knowing nothing much about the First World War. I had heard of the Somme, Ypres, Passchendale, but not much else. I knew its beginnings originated with the assassination of the archduke in Serbia, but not how that came to start such a massive conflict or why it lasted so long.

I now feel that I have a much better understanding of these and so many other elements of the war in what is a fantastically detailed and well-researched book. It includes all the stages of the war; from the reasons for the start, major phases in the war when the Central Powers were in the ascendancy, the Russian withdrawal and the involvement of America, through to the after-effects on world politics and economics.

However, for a first read about such a major episode it was too detailed with many facts and figures about the number of shells fired/produced etc. This is not to detract from the book which is excellent, it is just to say that, if, like me, you know very little about the First World War, then perhaps you will find this book a little heavy going and difficult to read.

That said, I will be keeping hold of the book so that I can go over sections of it now I have a better general understanding of the war, its major characters, the politics and battles.
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on 15 April 2008
1914-1918: The History of the First World War is a very readable and very interesting book. It provides interesting analysis and conclusions and does not stick to the usual arguments you hear about the First World War. It also benefits from dealing with all the areas of conflict (at least partially) and all the main protagonists, however, its primary focus is still the Western Front. Unlike The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson it has a much better structure which makes it much more accessible and Stevenson does argue his case much better. All in all a very good book which deals with both the causes, the events and the aftermath of the First World War and does not stick to the usual arguments but instead offers interesting insights and new evaluations.
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on 8 September 2009
I am now on my second reading of this book and am discovering facts missed the first time around. This is a very thorough book which must have taken many years of research.
I am no achademic but recognise the quality of the information coupled with an easily read text, crammed full of information. Arguments or suggestions for actions taken by different players in the conflict are well put and thought provoking. A thoroughly enjoyable book.
How I wish I had been taught history by the Author David Stevenson.
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on 18 August 2010
If you want the entire history of World War 1 in one book this is it, from the small political events to shot that was heard around the world that eventually ignited the powderkeg of Europe and started the bloodiest and worst led war the world had known. Seems amazing that the end would point the way for Germany to elect Hitler to power to satify their need for justice (Justified need in my view after the unfair Versailles treaty). If your thinking this will be a labarious read think again, it's well put together and flows neatly. Enjoy and afterwards a handy reference to reach for when a question arises. You wont see this book seconhand many places due to that fact alone.
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on 12 November 2013
David Stevenson's history of the First World War is exhaustive. Every sentence of the 600 densely printed pages is packed with information, often cross referring to other data within the same sentence. As a display of knowledge, and measured by factual coverage, the book is a huge success. Analysis is more sparing. Stevenson tends to drop comment after a comma in a factual statement. His analytic therefore lacks thorough working. For example, he states, in contradiction to Keynes (The Economic Consequences of the Peace), that the strictures of the Versailles treaty were not the cause of the Second World War, but were its necessary precondition. Keynes was actually at Versailles. Stevenson needs to work these kinds of argument much more deeply against their competing alternatives. The same goes for his claim that the start of the First World War was a deliberate decision of aggression by Germany. Philosophically, Stevenson clearly believes in cognitive behavioural decision theory. Very many other academics would put far more weight on causal factors, even though they may not endorse any neo-Marxist `theory of history'.

The book is somewhat exhausting as a result of being exhaustive. You have to persevere. It's as though the trudge of the war itself is reflected in getting through the book. Stevenson may be a great recorder, a chronicler, but not such an effective communicator. We may well eschew the `sound bite', but readers need to be able to digest an author's writing. Stevenson's spaghetti writing style, whilst commendable for its nutrition, does make his book less digestible. He peppers numerical data throughout the text, page 302 being a particularly notable example, whereas a summary data table, and other summary headline or timeline event tables would have eased his text and its digestibility greatly, and have made the book as communicative as it is informative.
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on 19 November 2009
If you are looking for a book about which battalion attacked what position on what day, then this is not for you.
If you are looking for a well researched, generally even handed, review of the circumstances leading up the outbreak of war, an insight into the various "sessions" of conflict in the context of the history of warfare & in relationships with each other (protaganists, generals, weapons, theatres etc), and an explanation as to how it all ended (& led to the continuation of world wide conflict), then this book is highly commended. Sometimes it can get overwhelming in its detail & references, however the sheer scale & intensity of the conflict is the cause of this. It merely reflects the events.
I would suggest that the reader may need to have a general knowledge of both the overall basis of WWI & some of the details (say, having already read some books on individual actions - eg Battle of the Somme), and now wants to expand their knowledge base into the broader picture, knitting together more complex issues, rather than the other way round - this is not an "entry level" book by any means.
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