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4.7 out of 5 stars45
4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 14 August 2002
It takes someone who really understands their subject to be able to write sparingly and still make the reader think. We all know the essence of this, the most horrid of wars. Gas, shells, machine guns, senseless offensives - we all have a vile image of trenches. Unlike other writers, Howard does not set out to alter this image. This book is an introduction to the military history of the war. The Eastern Front, Gallipoli, the war at sea are all covered and a truly global image emerges of powers pouring their lifeblood into a conflict that showed little sign of abating. This is the essence of the war. Howard shows how German victories on both the Eastern Front at the start of the war, and the Western Front at the end of the war, could not achieve the Clausewitzian victory of the Franco-Prussian war. He shows how dogged Allied tactical problem solving, especially in artillery support, and mobilisation of resources, especially in America, enabled the victors to press on to final victory. This was total war, this was grinding, grueling, starving, industrial war, won by deep pockets and sheer determination. This is the introduction to Strachan's in depth study. This is the book that anyone interested in the Twentieth Century should read. This is distilled historical thought.
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on 11 October 2004
If you know nothing of WW1 then this surely is the place to start. Howard's introduction is masterful. Given the fearful complexity of the origins, course and outcome of the War he manages to make his text remarkably accessible. I chewed over many new components. Given the sparseness of the book (30,000 words), it is also impressive that manages to make it truly moving (sacrifice, misery and disaster all round) while not getting bogged down either in the `war poet vision' or the historiographical controversies.
I strongly recommend it. I wonder if he could do the same with WW2? Or has he?
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on 16 May 2006
This book is mesmerising. Brief, passionate, brilliant. The author describes all the main events, political changes and battles in a simple but effective manner.
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VINE VOICEon 29 June 2008
For a book as compact as this, Howard does quite an enviable task of outlining the 'Great War' (as it was know to it's combatants). In fact, calling it an outline, or indeed 'very short', does it a minor disservice. Howard doesn't leave anything substantial out or waste any pages with discussion of the trivial. The end impression given is of a historian trying to let the grand events speak for themselves.

After reading the book I felt not only that it had given me a better grasp of the chronology and general outline of the war, but also answers to some of the key questions.
Why, despite the fact that only 10 years earlier war with France (again) seemed the likelier, conflict with Germany was eventually unavoidable given the clumsy diplomacy of Bismark's successors.
Why the morale of the German army and of the home front crumbled despite the vast (yet brief) empire in the east gained by the defeat of Russia.
And why, because of French and (suprisingly) American insistance upon a harsh peace, the rise of Hitler was inevitable and the carnage repeated on a still grander scale, ony 20 years later.
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on 9 June 2009
Michael Howard's introduction is so well-paced, well-written, and accessible, that within the first twenty pages, he provides a gripping and balanced description of the factors involved in leading Europe, and then the World, to war. He then elaborates on the conflict itself, touching not just on the politics, but upon the practical issues like troop numbers, available technology, and finance, as well as the cultural and ethnic dimensions of the relationships between the various empires and nations and their changing alliances. This really is an absorbing way to get a background on the subject, thoroughly recommended.
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on 2 January 2012
If, like me, you have little understanding of the causes and development of the Great War, this is an excellent primer and an easy read. It assumes minimal knowledge on the part of the reader and by the time you reach the end of the book you will have a good overview of the dreadful events of 1914-1918. This being a short introduction, I was left feeling I needed to know more about certain aspects but that is the point of the book.
My only real criticism is that the book contains a number of photographs which are not particularly interesting or relevant but no maps or plans of the battles, particularly on the Western Front, which I would have found useful in understanding the tactics being employed.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 January 2010
This is by Michael Howard the historian, not the Conservative politician. It is a good, concise, though rather bland, account of events leading up to and during the conflicts that came to be known as the Great War and `the war to end all wars' at the time. Of course it didn't, partly but not wholly, because of the terms of the peace that exacerbated German feelings of beleaguerement at its end.

No country comes out of this account with much credit but Germany emerges as a country whose reactions were distorted by the enormous hubris that permeated its leadership.

This is a good introduction to the subject, but there is much more to the detail of the war not given space here. It gives some good statistics, showing which armies failed and where, and recounts why some battles were won and not others. It does not go into events in much detail, but then it didn't set out to do that. It is, nevertheless, remarkable for the clarity and even-handedness it brings to such a hideously clouded and difficult subject
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on 2 February 2009
One of the best books I've read in a long time, I didn't know anything about the first world war before reading this - it's a must for anyone wanting to gen up.
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on 18 January 2011
I took my son to the Imperial War Museum between Xmas and New Year last year (thoroughly recommended) and was a bit disappointed at my lack of knowledge on WW1. Not bad on WW2 but as my son is studying WW1 in Year 8 I thought I had better gen up on it so I could help him.

I found this after a search on here and to be honest it could not have been any better. It is well written, concise and gives an excellent overview of what happened from the lead up to the war and on through it.

I found it to be a great education and rather thought provoking given what is going on in the world today, and what we have witnessed in Europe in the last 20 years, times, perhaps, don't change too much.

I suspect the purists will moan that this is a bit lightweight but for me it was absolutely spot on, a great, interesting read about a subject that I didn't realise had such influence elsewhere.

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on 30 October 2014
Thankfully, unlike the war itself this guide to the First World War is both short and achieves its aims.
It is part of the OUP’s VSI series and anyone familiar with the series should know what to expect.
It begins with an overview of the each of the Great (and not-so-great) European Powers in 1914, their strengths and weaknesses, the hopes and fears. The second chapter covers the outbreak of the war itself.
These are followed by year-by-year chapters on the progress – or lack thereof – of the war together with a chapter on the USA’s entry into the war.
The concluding chapter covers the aftermath of the war and the successes and failures of the various peace treaties.
On the back of the book Hew Strachan, who knows a thing or two about World War One, describes it as “a masterpiece of concision”. This is the third book I’ve read by Michael Howard, each of them short. One, which I would recommend, is “War in European History” and the other is “Clausewitz” another in this series, under the earlier Past Masters heading. Each work is clear – or as clear as one can be about Clausewitz – and concise. Some VSI authors write in what I consider to be an overly academic style for a general audience but I can assure readers that Sir Michael doesn’t fall into that category.
Three minor quibbles. The “front maps” could have been aligned in portrait fashion which would have allowed for more detail as the war tended to be fought East-West rather than North-South. The one slip of the pen I noticed was on page 115 where East Prussia is described as Germany’s “historic heartland”. It was Prussia’s heartland, not Germany’s. Finally he endorses Keynes’ view of Versailles – which is a valid, indeed perhaps the majority, position to hold – but fails to at least mention that there is an alternate view that Keynes got it wrong.
Why four stars for such an excellent book? I’m extremely reluctant to give five stars unless I regard a book as exceptional. Similarly I’d be reluctant to give a one star review. I think there are far too many fives and ones on Amazon. To date I’ve made only 1 five star and no one star review. I start assuming a three and adjust accordingly after I’ve read the book. (Would that there was some way of deleting “reviews” by people who clearly haven’t read the book in question). It would be better if Amazon allowed marks out of ten in which case I’d give this a nine.
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