The 10 Greatest WWI History Books

WWI History Books

WWI is a conflict known to many as the Great war, though any name, official or nickname, cannot hope to properly convey the level of death, destruction, and horror faced by those not only on the front line but also at home in the general population. WWI was, in effect, humanity’s first truly global war; its first mechanised war; its first reluctant taste at the true horrors of drawn-out trench warfare. The war coincided with an industrialisation in the west that was already underway, yet it also impacted on the societies of those that waged it more deeply and more immediately than ever before. For this reason, there is a substantial amount of literature available that covers the conflict, literature I’ve decided to scour through and present its very best offerings in this WWI History Books article. 

Forgotten Voices of the Great War: A New History of WWI in the Words of the Men and Women Who Were There

WWI History Books: Forgotten Voices of the Great War

The Imperial War Museum’s incredible collection of WWI oral history has been a pivotal tool for the works of many historians over the years, and Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices is a work that utilises this resource more than most. In many cases when writing about WWI, authors will utilise small snippets of the thousands of hours of footage (some 34,000 recordings in total) available at the IWM, but Arthur is the exception here. This book is comprised almost entirely of first-hand accounts of WWI from those who fought in its battles, worked on its front lines, and answered the calling of their individual countries to fight for freedom itself.

The only true downside to this text would be as a result of the reader having chosen it with expectations of it being an overarching, chronological history of WWI. Forgotten Voices isn’t a traditional blow-by-blow account of the war, but something arguably more important: a collection of transcripts of spoken interviews with the very people who experienced the hopes and horrors of the war first-hand. This is just one of what went on to be many books in the Forgotten Voices collection, which is an essential set of reads for anyone interested in modern military history.

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A History of The First World War In 100 Objects: In Association With The Imperial War Museum

WWI History Books: The First World War In 100 Objects

While Hughes’ book’s subject matter is quite a standard one in historical literature – it covers the period of WWI of course – its approach to structuring the narrative is a rather unique one. As its title suggests, this book is divided into separate chapters, each one beginning with a detailed picture of one of the many objects relating to WWI found in the Imperial War Museum, with which the author has worked in conjunction in order to produce this object-outwards perspective of the conflict.

The book itself is best described as a sort of historical show-and-tell, where the significance of each picture object is placed within the context of the war, and from each object a narrative is spun outwards to give readers a more detailed perspective of not only the use of the objects but also their impact on the people that used them as well as their significance to the war effort in general.

The format of this book makes it one of the easiest to pick up and put down at your leisure, since each chapter and its object can be read alone or in context with the rest of the work.

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A Woman's Diary of the War

WWI History Books: A Woman's Diary of the War

A large number of literary works regarding the women of the first world war are concerned primarily with the women’s war effort at home. However, Sarah Macnaughtan’s compelling book is concerned with her experiences and perspectives on the war directly from the front lines. The author’s experience of the action as head of orderly nurses in an ambulance unit in Antwerp informs her writing, instilling it with a raw perspective and constantly reminding us of the kind of horrors and visceral unpleasantness to which she and the rest of those present at the front lines would have been privy.

This is quite a short book – its length is 93 pages in total – but it stands out among the general histories of WWI because of its writing style: raw, unfiltered, and untarnished by the inevitable historical and political polarisation that many of the histories of the war suffer from.

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The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning History of the First Month of WWI

WWI History Books: The Guns of August

Anyone experienced in the WWI literature will immediately recognise and most likely have already read The Guns of August. This is arguably one of the most famous texts about WWI in existence. Written by Barbara Tuchman, an eminent historian and winner of the Pulitzer prize for her writing excellence, this book’s focus is on the events leading up to the outbreak of WWI. It covers in stunning detail the various characters and political stances that were at play in a variety of the aggravating nations before the war, as well as the short-term triggers that unfolded in quick succession and eventually caused the outbreak of mankind’s most bloody and futile conflicts.

To put into perspective the level of detail offered by this book one must remember that its subject matter is concerned primarily with the first 30 days of the conflict, yet its length? 600 pages. This should give you an idea of the depth of knowledge possessed by Tuchman, and the overwhelmingly positive reviews (including this glowing Guardian review) regarding this sublime work should also be an indicator of just how worth a read it is.

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WW1: A Layman's Guide

WWI History Books: WW1: A Layman's Guide

This is a general guide to the subject of the first world war, offering a broadly chronological structure in relatively short chapters. Each chapter concerns itself with a particular aspect, battle, or period of the war, ranging from the 1914 outbreak of the conflict to the cessation of fighting in 1918.

The author, Scott Addington, tersely reminds us in the opening passages that this isn’t a formal work on the level of most scholars’ WWI literature. The opening chapter itself sets as informal a tone as other Addington books, a tone that the rest of the book goes on to follow. For this reason, this book should be considered as a broad-stroke approach to the events at play before, during, and at the end of the war. This is an ideal text for newcomers to the subject to cut their teeth on what they will discover is an almost indigestible quantity of scholarly works on the subject of WWI. Addington’s book is the perfect appetiser that explain the events, logistics, and strategies at play during the conflict, and it’s easy to dip in and out of its short chapters.

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The Lost Tommies

WWI History Books: The Lost Tommies

The Lost Tommies is a unique work of significant historical importance. It comprises a visual history of the First World War’s soldiers, reminding us of the fragility of the link between the men at the front and their families they left behind at home. The book’s content is comprised of a great number of portrait photographs taken during the war, which were taken at the time and usually sent home to family members as a visual postcard from the front lines.

This archive-like collection of photographs are accompanied by the narrative of author Ross Coulthart, who takes us in great detail through the western front from a British perspective. The book’s many photographs of the Tommies, most of whom went on to lose their lives in the Battle of the Somme, serve as an emotional reminder of the human cost of the war, as well as acting as an informative historical documenting of the wider events of the war and the kind of relationships forged on the western front.

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The Hidden Threat: Mines and Minesweeping in WWI

WWI History Books: The Hidden Threat: Mines and Minesweeping in WWI

I felt it important that this book be included in this Top WWI history books article, mainly due to the largely underrepresented nature of the naval conflict during the war. Even further buried amongst the more popular literature concerning the Somme and the western front in general is Crossley’s fascinating account of the impact of mines and minesweeping in the war at sea. The book reminds us just how easy many have forgotten just how destructive the German mines were for the allies. We often forget the many battleships, destroyers, and other vessels were obliterated by German mines throughout the course of the war.

This book’s significance only increases when one considers the resurgence of the use of mines during WWII, again at great cost to the allies. This is a well-written book that covers this lesser-known branch of WWI military history.

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Fighter Heroes of WWI

WWI History Books: Fighter Heroes of WWI

Living in the modern age of technology, transport, and hi-tech aviation, it can be easy to forget the at the outset of the 20th century, men we stepping into the cockpit for the first time. The unimaginable pressure, therefore, of stepping into the cockpit of a fighter plane during wartime with the express aim of taking down enemy aircraft must have been utterly terrifying. This is one of the main reasons that reading Levine’s Fighter Heroes of World War I is such an interesting venture to undertake.

The narrative within the book takes the reader through the trials and tribulations of the very first fighter pilots not just of the war, but in human history. This book not only provides first-hand accounts of pilots from the war, but also reminds us of the speed at which planes transformed from purely reconnaissance aircraft to full-on fighter planes that would transform military aviation from that moment forwards.

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The Story of World War One

WWI History Books: The Story of World War One

The subject of WWI can be an extremely difficult one to digest even as a fully-grown adult, so how does one broach the subject with younger children? Brassey’s The Story of World War I is probably one of the best introductions to the great war found in the WWI literature in general.

This is a clear and concise history of the conflict, beginning with the events leading up to the war, and kicking off with the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand. The author manages to cover the key aspects of the war, from the major battles to the technological developments in the war and also the losses suffered, all without venturing into too much gory detail. Though some major aspects of the conflict are missing (alliances, for example), this is a fantastic text on which children can cut their historical teeth, dealing admirably with subject matter that’s difficult enough for adults to digest, let alone young children.

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No Empty Chairs: The Short and Heroic Lives of the Young Aviators Who Fought and Died in the First World War

WWI History Books: No Empty Chairs

The impact of the air conflict during WWI has never been quite so skilfully covered than it is by Mackersey in No Empty Chairs. This is a book that deals with the colossal human impact and cost of the air war. It reminds us of some sobering statistics, that at the height of the war the British were losing over 200 pilots per month. We’re also reminded of the short, 11-day life expectancy of the average pilot. In this book you will find a number of fantastic photographs and pictorial depictions of the frail flying machines used during the war, as well as covering the many men that fought and lost their lives in their rudimentary and fragile frames.

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