Book Review: The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, edited by Hew Strachan


The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, edited by Hew Strachan,  is one of those rare history books that manages to be both readable scholarly at the same time.   Indeed, it is an even rarer breed of book because it is an anthology and not by a single author.   Where many history books are written for the specialist historical crowd and there is an element of haughtiness in the writing, that condescension is entirely missing here.   This history book does not assume knowledge on the part of the reader, but at the same time does not present its material in such a way that the non-historian would be put off by it.

            Strachan does an outstanding job of editing, especially in keeping the tone of the book fairly consistent.   Consistency does lack in some places though, but this is more a result of the politics of the authors than anything else.   One instance of politics leaking through is in the chapter on women and the war by Gail Braybon.   There is nothing specific about the chapter that bothers me; it is just a general sense that Ms. Braybon goes out of her way to point out that in her opinion women did nothing extraordinary during the war, rather women just did what needed to be done.   She does not seem to think that women’s stepping up to fill men’s roles was very special or out of the ordinary, when in fact, the recruitment of women was a sign of expediency not what men or society expected or wanted of them.   In that sense then yes what women did during the war was special.   Ms. Braybon scarcely conceals her feminism and contempt for men and their supposed desire to keep women subservient.   This obvious bias detracts from the story of women’s accomplishments during the war.

            I particularly enjoyed several chapters, because they gave me greater insight into aspects of the war I had not previously considered.   One in particular that struck me as relevant and little studied in the west was Ulrich Trumpener’s chapter on Turkey’s involvement in the war.   Many histories give turkey’s involvement in the war short shrift as being of a secondary nature.   Trumpener clearly makes the case that the decline of the Ottoman Empire had profound consequences for all of Europe, and furthermore that the role turkey played in the war was anything but secondary.   For a power in decline, the Turks managed to tie down sizable Russian and British armies.

            Another chapter that I found compelling was Tim Travers’s discussion of the Allied victories of 1918.   He presents a succinct summary of the events from the end of the German spring offensives to the armistice.   He also points out the useful but limited role played by the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), something many American authors do not do.   It is common in American scholarship that the AEF’s role is lauded as being decisive.   Travers rightly points out that America’s entry into the war was a precipitating factor in the German decision to launch the spring offensives but America’s combat contribution was minimal, the American army was more of a potential than an actual threat at the time of the armistice.

            This may seem a quibbling point and it may only affect my copy of the book but one thing I did notice was the paper on which the book was printed.   I got a trade paperback from and it is printed on semi-glossy paper.   The thing about the paper that bothered me though was the smell.   The book smells as if it has been mimeographed.   It almost made want to smell to see if I would get high like we all did in grade school before the invention of affordable photocopying.   It was not an over powering smell, but when the book is first picked up to read the smell is fairly strong and distracting.

            Lastly, this is probably one of the better surveys of the war I have read.   This is surprising given that it is an anthology which in my opinion tend to be mediocre because the different authors never quite manage to keep a book flowing.   Overall, the book presents a balanced view of the war and is very successful at breaking the war down into easily digestible pieces that inform without overwhelming.