The best books on the Great War and why it haunts us

Tim Cook Author Of The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War
By Tim Cook

Who am I?

Tim Cook is the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum. Since 2002, he has curated the permanent First World War gallery of the CWM, which has been visited by an estimated 8 million people, and he has created many temporary, traveling, and digital exhibitions. He is also the author or editor of 13 books of Canadian military history. For his contributions to the study of Canadian history, he is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and the Order of Canada. He has selected five books that cover the scope of the war, from its origins to the legacy.


I wrote...

The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War

By Tim Cook,

Book cover of The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War

What is my book about?

Based on over twenty years of reading soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, this book explores the lives of Canadian soldiers in the trenches and behind the lines. It focuses on the unique soldiers’ culture of songs, trench newspapers, rumours, theatre, superstitions, ghost stories, and death culture that helped to shield soldiers from the unending strain of war and to bind them together in the face of the storm of steel.

The books I picked & why

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Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

By Michael Neiberg,

Book cover of Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

Why this book?

There is no shortage of books on why Europe, and then much of the world, went to war in 1914. Margaret MacMillan or Christopher Clark have offered deep insights, but my favourite short, readable, and scholarly history is Michael Neiberg’s Dance of the Furies. Neiberg skillfully braids together the complex interplay of societies gearing up and marching as to war, laying forth for the reader all of the the dark legacies, alliances, diplomatic errors, and tragic decisions that would lead to the relentless slaughter.

Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

By Michael Neiberg,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dance of the Furies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The common explanation for the outbreak of World War I depicts Europe as a minefield of nationalism, needing only the slightest pressure to set off an explosion of passion that would rip the continent apart. But in a crucial reexamination of the outbreak of violence, Michael Neiberg shows that ordinary Europeans, unlike their political and military leaders, neither wanted nor expected war during the fateful summer of 1914. By training his eye on the ways that people outside the halls of power reacted to the rapid onset and escalation of the fighting, Neiberg dispels the notion that Europeans were rabid…


War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War

By William Philpott,

Book cover of War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War

Why this book?

This brilliant book pulls together many strands of the war, as presented through the lens of attrition. In his sweeping narrative, Philpott focuses on the land war – how it was fought and why, and how it evolved over 4 years – but War of Attrition also examines the politics and diplomacy of war, and the war at sea, in the air, and at home. Pound for pound, the best book yet written on the war-fighting years.

War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War

By William Philpott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked War of Attrition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Wall Street Journal Best Non-Fiction Book of 2014!The Great War of 1914-1918 was the first mass conflict to fully mobilize the resources of industrial powers against one another, resulting in a brutal, bloody, protracted war of attrition between the world's great economies. Now, one hundred years after the first guns of August rang out on the Western front, historian William Philpott reexamines the causes and lingering effects of the first truly modern war. Drawing on the experience of front line soldiers, munitions workers, politicians, and diplomats, War of Attrition explains for the first time why and how this new…


Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies

By Alexander Watson,

Book cover of Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies

Why this book?

Amid the industrial war of fire and fury, a key question remains on how the soldiers survived. Watson’s book explores the experience for British and German soldiers, drawing upon their letters and diaries. Enduring the Great War offers new ways to understand the war of the trenches, how morale was sustained, and it provides an inner portrait into the men who took in the grinding warfare.

Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies

By Alexander Watson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Enduring the Great War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is an innovative comparative history of how German and British soldiers endured the horror of the First World War. Unlike existing literature, which emphasises the strength of societies or military institutions, this study argues that at the heart of armies' robustness lay natural human resilience. Drawing widely on contemporary letters and diaries of British and German soldiers, psychiatric reports and official documentation, and interpreting these sources with modern psychological research, this unique account provides fresh insights into the soldiers' fears, motivations and coping mechanisms. It explains why the British outlasted their opponents by examining and comparing the motives…


Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War

By Martha Ann,

Book cover of Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War

Why this book?

Soldiers and loved ones wrote tens of millions of letters during the war, as they supported one another and tried to close the gap of distance and time. These literary sources provide a glimpse into the war in the trenches and that at home, and one of my favourite books is Hanna’s Your Death Would be Mine. Based on a rich collection of letters between a French soldier and his wife, the reader peers into the secret war shared between those in uniforms and those who waited for them at home.

Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War

By Martha Ann,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Your Death Would Be Mine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Paul and Marie Pireaud, a young peasant couple from southwest France, were newlyweds when World War I erupted. With Paul in the army from 1914 through 1919, they were forced to conduct their marriage mostly by correspondence. Drawing upon the hundreds of letters they wrote, Martha Hanna tells their moving story and reveals a powerful and personal perspective on war.

Civilians and combatants alike maintained bonds of emotional commitment and suffered the inevitable miseries of extended absence. While under direct fire at Verdun, Paul wrote with equal intensity and poetic clarity of the brutality of battle and the dietary needs…


The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century

By David Reynolds,

Book cover of The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century

Why this book?

The Great War haunts us still, more than 100 years later. Reynolds’ brilliant book explores why that is the case, unspooling the many legacies of the war, from its impact on geopolitics and ideological systems to the long shadow of war shading culture and commemoration. A sweeping history by a master historian that shows why the Great War still matters, and will always matter.

The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century

By David Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Long Shadow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most violent conflicts in the history of civilization, World War I has been strangely forgotten in American culture. It has become a ghostly war fought in a haze of memory, often seen merely as a distant preamble to World War II. In The Long Shadow critically acclaimed historian David Reynolds seeks to broaden our vision by assessing the impact of the Great War across the twentieth century. He shows how events in that turbulent century-particularly World War II, the Cold War, and the collapse of Communism-shaped and reshaped attitudes to 1914-18.

By exploring big themes such as…


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