Great War books round up – Review by Mark Barnes

Great War books have been coming thick and fast and while it is true that a good many are part of a well established blueprint, some are out to grab your centennial buck. Is there anything wrong with this? No. Reprints of classic narratives or solid reference books are as welcome as new works and the fundamental importance is the issue of choice.  While there will always be diamonds and glass in any field of interest the more we get to see the better we will be able to discern what we want to read. Simples.  Bring it on.

I’ve had quite a few books stacking up in the east wing of WHO Towers and I was painfully aware I could never review them all without going gaga at some point. My friends will tell you it is too late for that anyway.  I used to hit the battlefield trail with a guy who would get so far through the day before he would announce “I am World War Oned Out.” We knew then it was time to find a café and call it a day. You will have noted the reviews team has expanded and is this is all to the good and I am especially grateful to Dr Wayne Osborne for shouldering a chunk of the Great War burden with his academic powers and positivity.  There are, however, a good number of books I need to get through and this round up of a dozen titles should give you a good idea of just some of the stuff out there.

Eyes down look in.

First up is Andrew Wiest’s THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF WORLD WAR I, a straightforward history of the conflict telling us it covers all fronts and includes battles, events, personalities and key weapons. First published in 2001 it forms part of a surge of reprints of a host of war related subjects put out by this publisher. The author wrote the impressive Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land, a book on the Vietnam War I have never been anxious to part with.  Getting bacj on topic there is certainly a lot going on here and the format works well enough given the dimensions. This book is really aimed at anyone taking a first dip into the war as a whole and I suspect it is the sort of single volume account you might find on the bookshelf of a home where the occupants have more than a passing interest in history.  Now, I don’t believe in experts per se and although I can say I know a good bit about the war I do not know everything. This book does, indeed, cover all the bases and there is a liberal sprinkling of some very good and often well-known photography. It works as a general history for students and is difficult to fault for what it does. The format doesn’t really do the photography justice and you will have to decide if this puts you off or not. I suppose the big problem is this book is just one of a number vying for the same readership and it all comes down to how eager you are to spend your hard earned money on stuff like this.

Published by Amber Books
ISBN: 978-1-78274-137-4

The Victoria Cross quite naturally holds a special position in the world of books. There have been dozens of volumes down the years either chronicling the whole history of the medal and it’s recipients or covering specific periods and actions. You can read many excellent references for VC recipients on the internet and while I use it all the time for help with stuff I need to know in a hurry there are countless times at home when I prefer to reach for something more tangible and only a book will do.  Here we have five books covering only part of the total of the 627 VCs awarded during the Great War. They won’t be the first, or last by any means, on this huge subject; but they all do a serious job of work.

Mark Ryan’s THE FIRST VCs recounts the story of Maurice Dease and Sidney Godley of the 4th Bn Royal Fusiliers who defended the railway bridge at Nimy near Mons where the British Expeditionary Force and German army clashed on 23rd August, 1914. Dease was the first posthumous VC recipient of the war. Although the old bridge has long since been replaced you can stand at the spot where Dease fought and died and where Godley was eventually taken prisoner. Lieutenant Maurice Dease is buried in St Symphorien cemetery and paying my respects at his grave was a very special experience. The importance of this book is to remind us that Sidney Godley came home from captivity to lead a dignified life of ever-present remembrance for the people he left behind until his death in 1957. This is a worthy addition to any medal history library.

Published by the History Press
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5451-8

THE NAVAL VCs by Stephen Snelling, THE AIR VCs by Peter G Cooksley and Peter F Batchelor and ROAD TO VICTORY 1918 by Gerald Gliddon are softback editions from a series of books from the History Press first published over a decade ago and in some cases longer. The handy size means they won’t take up a mass of space in your library, but I guess that depends on how many there are in the full set. Books like these are staples of the military publishing effort. As an example, I have Chaz Bowyer’s Air VCs books from way back in the day and you may well ask why such similar titles find their way into print time and again. The obvious answer is people must want them. Can there be anything new to learn about the men covered here? The simple answer is there is always something new to learn. The presentation style and illustrations work well and efficient books like these for under £10 a volume won’t leave you skint.

Published by the History Press
The Naval VCs – ISBN: 978-0-7524-8733-5
The Air VCs – ISBN: 978-0-7524-8731-1
Road to Victory – ISBN: 978-0-7524-5361-0


MONS to HILL 60 offers a detailed look at the medal actions with maps, contemporary photos and illustrations and modern views of where the deeds took place.  Author Paul Oldfield has done a superb job here with a book that has all the appearance of a supersized version of the excellent Battleground Europe series produced by the same publisher and, indeed, this author is responsible for some of them. It shows.  We find ourselves again at Mons with Dease and Godley but there is so much more in a book that takes us from the start of the war to the horrors of Hill 60. This type of book is manna from heaven to me and there is nothing more to add on that score.  It is clearly part of a series and I would happily have eyes on the others. Top marks.

Published by Pen & Sword


RETREAT OF I CORPS 1914 by Jerry Murland, THE BATTLE OF VIMY RIDGE – 1917 by Jack Sheldon and Nigel Cave and YPRES 1914: LANGEMARCK also by Sheldon and Cave are from the aforementioned Battleground Europe series. Aside from being superior battlefield guides they are also bloody good reads. They come in a convenient paperback format that will fit in your coat pocket and the authors of this selection are some of the best in the business. I use these books all the time and have built up a collection I would never part with. The list of subjects available in the range is as long as your arm and in this case where Jack Sheldon is on board we are guaranteed a much stronger emphasis on what the Germans were doing and this can only be to the good if battlefields – never tidy places at the best of times – are to make sense. Does this constitute a review? Probably not. These books are copper plated and regardless of anything I have to say about them a good many sensible people will be collecting them anyway. If you plan to visit the battlefields take in all the sources you can get your hands on beforehand. When much of what you will need comes from books that will fit in the glove box next to some of the odds and sods the French police require you to travel with then you cannot go wrong. I note that while two are of the three are brand new one is a couple of years old now, but Pen & Sword once told me they aren’t fussed how long it takes some books to get reviewed by WHO or anyone else, as long as they do. Job done.

Published by Pen & Sword Military
Retreat of I Corps 1914 – ISBN: 978-78346-373-2
The Battle For Vimy Ridge – 1917 – ISBN: 978-1-84415-552-1
Ypres 1914: Langemarck – ISBN: 978-1-78159-199-4

Jerry Murland comes back with Jon Cooksey to offer a somewhat similar guide from Pen & Sword’s Battle Lines series with THE RETREAT FROM MONS 1914: NORTH. CASTEAU to LE CATEAU. The sub heading to these books reads The Western Front By Car, By Bike and on Foot.  This particular volume is one of two looking at those dramatic days in 1914 and we find ourselves in the company of Maurice Dease and Sidney Godley once more for part of the journey. These books differ from the Battleground Europe series by being a little less history and a tad more guide in appearance. But they are all still substantial books and will prove most useful for getting around the battlefield. To my shame I have only been to Mons on one cold foggy day and have never made the journey in the footsteps of the retreating BEF. So this book, along with Mr Murland’s RETREAT OF I CORPS (mentioned above) should pretty much cover it all for me when I get on that particular trail. Good stuff.

Published by Pen & Sword Military – ISBN: 978-198303-038-5

SOUTHEND-ON-SEA IN THE GREAT WAR by Frances Clamp is one of a huge series of similar local history books produced by Pen & Sword.  I have heard mixed opinions on this range and a lot of this comes down to attitudes towards the stories that are included and, more importantly, those that aren’t. It makes a good example for review because I have lived in the town since the late 1980s and know a number of facts about the war, some of which appear in this book and some that don’t.  The street where I live was bombed by a Zeppelin resulting in the death of a resident but it would be churlish to expect a book like this to offer a street by street gazetteer of the air raids without sending the vast majority of readers to sleep and making the book bigger than a Next catalogue. The problem local history books will always suffer is that a big slice of their intended audience always want to read about streets and places they know and non-inclusion is a bit of a turn off. This book tells me a great deal I didn’t know and that is good enough for me. Southend has it’s own flourishing branch of the Western Front Association and the town’s library and museum have done a great deal to bring the history of the war to life. This book adds to it all and for less than a tenner it is difficult to see how this can’t be a good thing especially if there is a volume on your town or city.

Published by Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978-1-47382-255-9

WHAT TOMMY TOOK TO WAR by Peter Doyle and Chris Foster is a hoot. I really enjoyed this book for the quality of both the text and the photography. The fact it is of a diminutive size kind of adds to the appeal. The book covers a swathe of weapons, clothing, equipment and personal items the British soldier took to war with him. The book is a total delight with economic but incisive descriptions of the chosen items coupled with superb illustrations. While it made total sense as a Christmas stocking filler, this book is another of the group I see fitting onto the shelves of anyone with more than a mild interest in history and may well help with your family history conundrum when you find something in the back of an old drawer at your granny’s house. This book is a something of a derivative from Peter Doyle’s wonderful The First World War in 100 Objects which we should have reviewed but didn’t have dealings with the History Press at that time. I had the pleasure of attending Peter’s talk on that book and I can assure you that with this particular title you are getting plenty of bang for less than seven of your British pounds. Marvellous

Published by Shire Publications
ISBN: 978-0-74781-403-0

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.