Top critical review
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Really good -- in parts
on 27 May 2013
I have read all the rave reviews of this book on Amazon and on the book's cover -- such as "Quite simply the best short history of the war in print" and "Meticulous... [with] amazing, newly unearthed photographs within this beautifully designed book."
I can only envy the thorough knowledge of the war that others possess that enables them to praise so highly and without reservation. For the likes of me, someone who has read a fair amount about the first world war (mainly but not only novels and poetry) but is not a student of the war nor a professional historian, a large amount of this book leaves one struggling to find the forest amidst the profusion of trees.
Parts of it I found clear and informative, other parts tangled, dense, filled with names of people and locations I often couldn't place, making chunks of the text thoroughly confusing. Many of the photos are good but often comprise a distraction from the text rather than a help in understanding anything. The placement is decorative rather than instructive. I'd have benefited far more from diagrams showing mountains, rivers, borders, location of armies, salients and suchlike: those would have made some of the dense text intelligible. The six pages of maps in the front of the book are little help, often lacking features one might look for in order to clarify what is said in the text about movements of men and materiel, tactics, and so on.
Elsewhere (again, in place of photos) tables of numbers -- of troops, tanks, ships, artillery, food supplies, etc., etc., etc. -- would have been much more help in grasping the overall argument than complex sentences.
Professor Strachan is praised because he "brings to life and explains an immensely complex historical phenomenon" and "brings together the details of events and the big picture to build a compelling narrative." The only problem is that for a layperson like myself, neither an historian nor a professional book reviewer, this is only intermittently true and I fear that if I took a course taught by Professor Strachan I'd do very poorly. The way he presents material in much of this book is just not good teaching.