World War I: A Primary Source History, by Nicholas Saunders
For this book’s target audience and purposes, I think it is a fine enough book at introducing the (presumably young reader) to the primary sources that exist about World War I. In looking at this book from my own perspective, of course, this book is extremely basic and it deals with primary sources in a very small way, taking very small selections from those sources and integrating them into what is a conventional narrative of the war that focuses on the Western front. Yet this book is written for readers who may not be aware of or interested in more than the basics and who might not be familiar with primary sources at all. This is a taste of something that may become a much larger and much deeper interest, and as this seems to be the approach of this series as a whole, I can understand and approve of the way in which sources are tastefully handled as part of a larger narrative, where the reader can seek and investigate those sources for more detailed looks at what people at the time had to say about the experience of World War I.
This book is a short one at about 50 pages. The book begins with an introduction. After that the author discusses some of the immediate prehistory of the First World War by looking at the succession of Balkan crises that eventually led to war and the alliances that escalated matters out of hand (1). After that the author discusses the build up of forces as one nation after another joined in (2) as well as the mass slaughter that followed the war given the strength of artillery and machine guns and the static nature of trench warfare in the West (3). The author discusses the end of the conflicts as Germany’s last assaults knocked out Russia but were unable to knock out Britain and France before America’s numbers became too much to tell (4). The book then discusses the war in popular culture (5) as well as the latest technological developments that featured in the way the war was fought (6). Finally, the book discusses some of the major figures–mostly generals and politicians–who made their name in World War I and then ends with a glossary and index. The book mostly serves as a narrative but includes enough primary sources to make it worth reading.
This is precisely the sort of book that ought to appeal to a reader who is just trying to learn about military history and has likely only been familiar with textbook accounts and maybe basic narrative history and would like to know more about the First World War. And given the popularity of such books, it is not too surprising that this book would be part of a series that seeks to expose people to the primary sources that rest at the foundation of good historical writing in general. And this book is to be praised for not merely looking at war diaries but also including World War I poetry and the novels and other books that were written afterwards. The fact that World War I encouraged people to be hostile to war at a time when standing firm against evil became increasingly important is one of the many tragedies of World War I in that it robbed people of the hope and optimism to stand and fight when it might have prevented a greater disaster because of the horrors that had come before, a tack which only encouraged bullies and dictators to oppress others without fear of justice or retribution.