Review: A History of the First World War in 100 Objects, John Hughes-Wilson, 2014.
A remarkably complete history of the war covering every major combat theatre – Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – from mining operations below ground to air combat and bombing, from under the sea to the Battle of Jutland. It covers weapons and war financing, logistics and espionage, home front politics and war production, mutinies, the soldiers’ life in combat and behind the trenches and on leave, and artists and the war.
The format is simple. Each chapter has a full-page picture of an object, an inset talking about it, and anywhere from one to six pages of text, often with additional, smaller photos, covering the subject the object represents.
The objects are not always what you expect. For instance, a “body density map” is shown for a chapter on Western Front casualties, a fullerphone (a scrambler for voice and Morse signals passed on a wire), Lieutenant Augustus Agar’s boat (used in a raid on the Bolshevik fleet for which he won “the mystery VC”), and a harpoon gun used by interred German sailors at Scapa Flow to supplement their meagre rations with birds.
Fourteen of the 100 objects refer to events either before or after the war.
As you would expect in a book produced by the Imperial War Museum (itself a product of the war as per chapter 98), there is a bit of a British Empire bias in the selections. We get multiple chapters on the Irish problem, and the chapter on espionage really only covers British espionage. On the other hand, this works in the book’s favor sometimes. For instance, while German food shortages are often mentioned, British food shortages during the war are less so.
The book is indexed with multiple maps beginning with Europe before the war and ending with Europe’s new nations after the war. Apart from Africa, every major theatre gets maps with several of the Western Front during various years. There’s even a sewn-in ribbon for a bookmark. The paper and binding are high quality.
Could you, as the introduction suggests, use this book as a chronological depiction of the war? Yes, with a little work in hunting down the relevant chapters. It would seem more useful for newbies to World War One history to just dip into a chapter at random and let their curiosity take them through the book as their curiosity is piqued.
Obviously, there is only so much detail you can put in 448 pages, but, as a one volume history of the war, I haven’t come across better.
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