Great War Reads

One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Four days later, Congress voted in favor of a war declaration and the U.S. formally entered the First World War. In honor of the centennial, we’re featuring some of our favorite releases about WWI, both before the U.S. entrance and after, on the home front and on the western front.


My Life before the World War, 1860–1917: A Memoirpershing4.indd

Few American military figures are more revered than General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing (1860–1948), who is most famous for leading the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. The only soldier besides George Washington to be promoted to the highest rank in the U.S. Army (General of the Armies), Pershing was a mentor to the generation of generals who led America’s forces during the Second World War.

Though Pershing published a two-volume memoir, My Experiences in the World War, and has been the subject of numerous biographies, few know that he spent many years drafting a memoir of his experiences prior to the First World War. In My Life Before the World War, 1860–1917, John T. Greenwood rescues this vital resource from obscurity, making Pershing’s valuable insights into key events in history widely available for the first time.

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york.final.inddAlvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne

Alvin C. York (1887–1964)—devout Christian, conscientious objector, and reluctant hero of World War I—is one of America’s most famous and celebrated soldiers. Known to generations through Gary Cooper’s Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 1941 film Sergeant York, York is credited with the capture of 132 German soldiers on October 8, 1918, in the Meuse-Argonne region of France—a deed for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

At war’s end, the media glorified York’s bravery but some members of the German military and a soldier from his own unit cast aspersions on his wartime heroics. Historians continue to debate whether York has received more recognition than he deserves. A fierce disagreement about the location of the battle in the Argonne forest has further complicated the soldier’s legacy.

In Alvin York, Douglas V. Mastriano sorts fact from myth in the first full-length biography of York in decades. He meticulously examines York’s youth in the hills of east Tennessee, his service in the Great War, and his return to a quiet civilian life dedicated to charity. By reviewing artifacts recovered from the battlefield using military terrain analysis, forensic study, and research in both German and American archives, Mastriano reconstructs the events of October 8 and corroborates the recorded accounts. On the eve of the WWI centennial, Alvin York promises to be a major contribution to twentieth-century military history.

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The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World Warchristmas_truce_final.indd

In ate December 1914, German and British soldiers on the western front initiated a series of impromptu, unofficial ceasefires. Enlisted men across No Man’s Land abandoned their trenches and crossed enemy lines to sing carols, share food and cigarettes, and even play a little soccer. Collectively known as the Christmas Truce, these fleeting moments of peace occupy a mythical place in remembrances of World War I. Yet new accounts suggest that the heartwarming tale ingrained in the popular imagination bears little resemblance to the truth.

In this detailed study, Terri Blom Crocker provides the first comprehensive analysis of both scholarly and popular portrayals of the Christmas Truce from 1914 to present. From books by influential historians to the Oscar-nominated French film Joyeux Noel (2006), this new examination shows how a variety of works have both explored and enshrined this outbreak of peace amid overwhelming violence. The vast majority of these accounts depict the soldiers as acting in defiance of their superiors. Crocker, however, analyzes official accounts as well as private letters that reveal widespread support among officers for the détentes. Furthermore, she finds that truce participants describe the temporary ceasefires not as rebellions by disaffected troops but as acts of humanity and survival by professional soldiers deeply committed to their respective causes.

The Christmas Truce studies these ceasefires within the wider war, demonstrating how generations of scholars have promoted interpretations that ignored the nuanced perspectives of the many soldiers who fought. Crocker’s groundbreaking, meticulously researched work challenges conventional analyses and sheds new light on the history and popular mythology of the War to End All Wars.

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9780813168012Kentucky and the Great War: World War I on the Home Front

From five thousand children marching in a parade, singing, “Johnnie get your hoe, Mary dig your row,” to communities banding together to observe Meatless Tuesdays and Wheatless Wednesdays, Kentuckians were loyal supporters of their country during the First World War. Kentucky had one of the lowest rates of draft dodging in the nation, and the state increased its coal production by 50 percent during the war years. Overwhelmingly, the people of the Commonwealth set aside partisan interests and worked together to help the nation achieve victory in Europe.

David J. Bettez provides the first comprehensive analysis of the impact of the Great War on Bluegrass society, politics, economy, and culture, contextualizing the state’s involvement within the national experience. His exhaustively researched study examines the Kentucky Council of Defense—which sponsored local war-effort activities—military mobilization and preparation, opposition and dissent, and the role of religion and higher education in shaping the state’s response to the war. It also describes the efforts of Kentuckians who served abroad in military and civilian capacities, and postwar memorialization of their contributions.

Kentucky and the Great War
 explores the impact of the conflict on women’s suffrage, child labor, and African American life. In particular, Bettez investigates how black citizens were urged to support a war to make the world “safe for democracy” even as their civil rights and freedoms were violated in the Jim Crow South. This engaging and timely social history offers new perspectives on an overlooked aspect of World War I.

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Lossberg’s War: The World War I Memoirs of a German Chief of Staffuntitled

General Fritz von Lossberg (1868–1942) directed virtually all the major German defensive battles on the Western Front during the First World War. Hailed as “the Lion of the Defensive,” he was an extremely influential military tactician and, unlike many other operations officers of his era, was quick to grasp the changes wrought by technology.

Now available for the first time in English, Lossberg’s memoir explains how he developed, tested, and implemented his central principles—flexibility, decentralized control, and counterattack—which were based on a need to adapt to shifting conditions on the battlefield. Lossberg first put his theory of elastic defense combined with defense-in-depth into practice during the Battle of Arras (April–May 1917), where it succeeded. At the Battle of Passchendaele (June–November 1917), his achievements on the field proved the feasibility of his strategy of employing a thinly manned front line that minimized the number of soldiers exposed to artillery fire. Lossberg’s tactical modernizations have become essential components of army doctrine, and Lossberg’s War: The World War I Memoirs of A German Chief of Staff will take readers inside the mind of one of the most significant military innovators of the twentieth century.

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More books about military history can be found in our American Warriors  and Battles and Campaigns series

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