This is an excellent book that provides a unique insight into the unfolding of the early years of the First World War. Mike Webb has constructed a compelling narrative around the letters of 17 main protagonists including contemporary and future prime ministers, army officers and civilians. Webb's analysis is subtle and beautifully written, seemingly effortlessly enabling the diaries and letters to 'speak for themselves' . The material is skilfully arranged so that the narrative that binds these individuals contrasts their thoughts, feelings, their hopes and their fears in such a way that we feel that we are sitting alongside Webb as he unlocks hitherto unseen secrets. Take, for instance, the revelation that Asquith sent state secrets to the lady in his life through the post, and then panicked in case he needed them, writing again to request their return. Or Viscount Harcourt who scribbled notes into the margins of cabinet papers, attracting the attention of the PM who asked him to stop doing it - which he didn't. Or the sensitive, poignant and sometimes deeply moving thoughts expressed by the young MacMillan writing from the front.
The material, archived in the Bodleian Library, is priceless and hitherto unseen. Of course this gives Webb a great starting point when compared to the 100s of other books that accompany the 100th anniversary of the First World War. However we shouldn't underestimate the craft of the writer who has bound them together with a text that ensures that these very human stories create an absorbing page-turner.