The Great War coffee table book contest takes another turn with this whopper from Dorling Kindersley. When my son was a youngster he had a huge liking for this publisher’s trademark style of high energy, superbly illustrated books. We’ve bounced some way from the Star Wars themed books he loved to an earthly age of empires and the familiar feel of it inspired him to comment “World War One for fourteen year old boys.” Is that a bad thing? No. Right from the looming presence of Lord Kitchener on the cover to the tragic splendour of Notre Dame de Lorette at the end, this book is exactly the kind of introduction to the war I would have wanted when I was a considerably younger me. Plenty of adults could do with reading it.
It describes itself as a the definitive visual guide and you have to accept this on many levels, because it is a guide cramming in the multifaceted reality of the Great War and not just sticking to the standard themes we all know. The book is in the hands of RG Grant and Richard Overy and it must have been a challenge steering a course across those awful four years to find balance and temper the sensationalism it would be easy to drift in to. They have achieved this and I would suggest, as my son did, that this is a good starting point for anyone looking at the war, especially a younger reader. What I always hope is that books like this act as a springboard to the deeper history where it possible to go beyond overviews and a youthful obsession with hardware to find the real stuff of the men who fought the war.
The illustrations are, as you would expect from DK, beautifully done. The mixture of archive photography, art and the studio images of weaponry, clothing and ephemera are top notch. The book looks as fantastic, as colourful and as vast as the war really was. There is a confidence that can only come from a tried and tested system that is equally at home with the imperial storm troopers of George Lucas as it with those of Kaiser Wilhem. I cannot fault this. The war is not glamorised and it is not sexy. It is what it was – a brutal industrial conflict of many nations and races. They are all here.
The book has the confidence not to ignore the Easter Rising in Dublin or the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks. That the war was the end of some empires but only the beginning of the gradual death of others is a truth we have to accept whatever our position. I like the emphasis on many of the important military leaders of the war, the likes of Joffre, Pershing, Haig and Foch. The latter is accompanied with that arch Francophile Henry Wilson’s description of him as the bravest man he had known; a testy point given his adulation of him at a known cost to his own countrymen. The book’s treatment of Douglas Haig is fair while it highlights Black Jack Pershing’s resolute disinclination to accept that modern artillery and the machine gun had ended the free reign of the rifleman. The politicians of the day get the same treatment.
I like this book. Not just because it looks gorgeous, a DK book always will, whatever the subject; but because it does a complete job. The publishers might not appreciate my emphasis that this is very much a book for the young. It is. If it helps cut through some of the media targeted nonsense we are to endure for four years and leads people of any age to a deeper understanding of the Great War then it is a success and I will applaud it.
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
WORLD WAR I
The Definitive Visual Guide from Sarajevo to Versailles
By Richard Overy and RG Grant
ISBN: 978 1 40934 761 3