The best books on the most famous battles of the First World War

Who am I?

Holger Herwig has taught military/diplomatic history at Vanderbilt University and the University of Calgary for 40 years. He spent a year at the U.S. Naval War College and has been a regular speaker for the German armed forces Research Center now at Potsdam. He has published 16 books and recently retired as a Canada Research Chair.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World

What is my book about?

The Battle of the Marne began on 6 September 1914; it ended six days later in a stalemate. It was the biggest battle since Waterloo 1815. Roughly 900,000 German soldiers advanced against 1.1 million Anglo-French combatants. The critical German right-wing—which was to trap and defeat the French forces between “the horns of Paris and Verdun”—counted 271 battalions and 1,592 guns. Victory had been prescribed by Alfred von Schlieffen to come in six weeks.

The carnage was frightful. While neither side kept records of the Marne campaign, the French official history calculated losses for August and September at roughly 420,000, of which 40 percent might have been at the Marne; the German official history set losses for the first 10 days of September at about 100,000 men. The fields along the Marne River reeked with the smell of decaying men and horses in the hot August sun. Cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, and venereal disease claimed thousands of others—as did diarrheal diseases caused by soldiers devouring the half-ripe fruit of bountiful orchards.

The Battle of the Marne ended the German bid for a quick victory in the West. The front, now extended from the Channel Coast to the Swiss border, degenerated into four years of brutal siege warfare.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Blood on the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915

Holger H. Herwig Why did I love this book?

The book is a stunning tale of death and disaster. In February 1915 one Austro-Hungarian army and one German army tried to relieve the Russian-besieged Habsburg fortress of Przemyśl and its 120,000-man garrison. The Austro-Hungarian troops advanced along the 1,200-meter high ridges of the Carpathian Mountains in snowstorms and dense fog. Intermittent sleet, snow, wind, and ice battered the men. Temperatures plummeted to -25 degrees Celsius. Sudden thaws turned the battlefields into seas of mud. Men either froze to death or drowned in the ooze. Hunger, starvation, disease (typhus and cholera), frostbite, and wolves took their toll. Horses and dogs became a dietary staple. Life expectancy was down to five or six weeks. Countless troopers committed suicide.

The butcher’s bill was astronomical: 800,000 casualties, more men than would fall at Verdun or the Somme one year later. Despite the deadly relief effort, the Przemyśl garrison surrendered to the Russians on 23 March 1915. The Habsburg Army had lost its most experienced officers and noncommissioned officers. The Austrian official history referred to the once-proud Royal and Imperial Army after February 1915 as little more than a “militia” force. Its vaunted commander, Conrad von Hötzendorf, lost both respect and reputation. In the author’s words, the Carpathian Winter War was the “Stalingrad of World War I.”

By Graydon A. Tunstall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blood on the Snow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Carpathian campaign of 1915, described by some as the ""Stalingrad of the First World War,"" engaged the million-man armies of Austria-Hungary and Russia in fierce winter combat that drove them to the brink of annihilation. Habsburg forces fought to rescue 130,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers trapped by Russian troops in Fortress Przemysl, but the campaign was waged under such adverse circumstances that it produced six times as many casualties as the number besieged. It remains one of the least understood and most devastating chapters of the war-a horrific episode only glimpsed previously but now vividly restored to the annals of history…

Book cover of Caporetto 1917

Holger H. Herwig Why did I love this book?

Some books, like Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, have stood the test of time. The same is true of this work, first published in 1965. Caporetto (Karfreit to the Germans) was an epic mountain struggle, brutal and deadly. It was fought in October and November 1917 in the 2,000-meter-high Julian Alps. Snow, sleet, rain, fog, and poisonous gas dominated the battlefield. Otto von Below’s German Fourteenth Army, using new innovative infiltration tactics, surprised Luigi Capello’s Italian Second Army. By the end of October, the Italians had been driven south to the Piave River. Only the hasty dispatch of five British and six French divisions helped stabilize the front. Rome’s postwar investigation of the disaster revealed that there had been 43,000 casualties, 265,000 to 275,000 prisoners of war taken and 3,000 artillery pieces lost. Most shockingly, roughly 350,000 deserters and civilian stragglers clogged the roads. The adversary had sustained fewer than 70,000 casualties. At Rapallo, the Allies created a Supreme War Council to improve military cooperation and to devise a common strategy.

The legacy of Caporetto is both military and literary. As Italy’s worst ever battlefield catastrophe, it created the myth of Italian military ineptness as well as the tactical brilliance of a Württemberg infantry captain named Ernst Rommel: Infantry Attacks (1944). And on the literary front, the first-person 1929 fictional account of the battle from the ambulance driver Frederic Henry established Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as the “premier American war novel” of the First World War.

By Cyril Falls,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Caporetto 1917 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916

Holger H. Herwig Why did I love this book?

The Battle of Verdun has become a synonym for the senseless slaughter of the Great War. Ten million artillery shells rained down on the 50 to 70 divisions per side; and while no formal records of losses were kept by either combatant, the official French history spoke of almost 380,000 casualties. German losses surely would have been commensurate with this. The new tools of war included phosgene gas, gas masks, flamethrowers, and steel helmets. Men ran into deadly machine-gun fire with reckless abandon. Artillery shredded all in its path. Gas destroyed the lungs of tens of thousands. Rats by the millions ate well. Layers of lime chloride covered the heaps of dead men and horses that had succumbed to the “meat grinder” of the Meuse. The German aim, partially accomplished, had simply been to “bleed the French to death.”

The “hell of Verdun” lasted 300 days; its noted veterans included the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, the future tank advocates Charles de Gaulle and Heinz Guderian, as well as the eventual Nazi leaders Rudolf Hess and Ernst Röhm. Over time, Verdun became enshrouded in mythology. The French christened it a “sacred city". Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg spoke of it as “a beacon light of German valor.” Hordes of tourists are told of 1 million dead and of 250,000 French soldiers entombed behind the glass windows of the ossuary alone. Horne’s book offers a riveting saga of individual heroism and collective stupidity. It has stood the test of time and has been continuously reprinted for six decades.

By Alistair Horne,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 is the second book of Alistair Horne's trilogy, which includes The Fall of Paris and To Lose a Battle and tells the story of the great crises of the rivalry between France and Germany.

The battle of Verdun lasted ten months. It was a battle in which at least 700,000 men fell, along a front of fifteen miles. Its aim was less to defeat the enemy than bleed him to death and a battleground whose once fertile terrain is even now a haunted wilderness.

Alistair Horne's classic work, continuously in print for over fifty…

Book cover of Jutland: The Unfinished Battle

Holger H. Herwig Why did I love this book?

On 31 May 1916, the greatest naval battle in history took place at the Skagerrak, the waters between Denmark and Norway. John Jellicoe commanded 28 battleships and 8 battle cruisers of the British Grand Fleet; opposing him were Reinhard Scheer’s 16 battleships and 5 battle cruisers of the German High Sea Fleet. There were four distinct phases of the battle: first, Franz Hipper attempted to lure David Beatty’s battle cruisers onto the High Sea Fleet; Beatty then turned north and sought to lure the High Sea Fleet onto Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet; next, Jellicoe attempted to cut Scheer’s battleships off from their home base; and finally, a confused night engagement between light craft brought the battle to an end. The British had lost 3 battle cruisers and 6,784 men, the Germans 1 battle cruiser and 3,039 men. Almost fifty warships had been damaged. The next morning Scheer limped home.

The British public saw the battle as a defeat. There had not been the expected “second Trafalgar” of 1805. Still, while a German tactical victory, Jutland was a British strategic triumph. Scheer never challenged the entire Grand Fleet again, and instead recommended unrestricted submarine warfare to Kaiser Wilhelm II—a course of action that brought the United States into the war on the Allied side in April 1917.

The author, Jellicoe’s grandson, suggests a double entendre in the subtitle. Not only was the actual naval battle “unfinished,” but the postwar war of words over who had “lost” Jutland, Jellicoe or Beatty, also remained “unfinished.” The author apportions equal blame to both British admirals. The issue at stake, he concludes, “had been sea power” rather than a single battle. After Jutland, the Royal Navy exercised sea power; the Germans still sought it.

By Nicholas Jellicoe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

More than one hundred years after the battle of Jutland, the first and largest engagement of Dreadnoughts in the twentieth century, historians are still fighting this controversial and misunderstood battle. What was in fact a strategic victory stands out starkly against the background of bitter public disappointment in the Royal Navy and decades of divisive acrimony and very public infighting between the camps supporting the two most senior commanders, Jellicoe and Beatty.

This book not only re-tells the story of the battle from both a British and German perspective based on the latest research, but it also helps clarify the…

Book cover of Gallipoli: The End of the Myth

Holger H. Herwig Why did I love this book?

The Anglo-French assault on the Dardanelles Straits in 1915 was the greatest amphibious assault in history. Its strategic design was to relieve Ottoman pressure on the Russians in the Caucasus; to bring about the collapse of the Ottoman state; to open the maritime highway for resupplying Russia; and to convince Greece to join the Allies.

In March 16 British and French battleships entered the Straits to batter the defenses and to seize Constantinople. It was a disaster. Three battleships were sunk, another three were put out of commission, and four were heavily damaged. The naval operation was followed by an amphibious assault on various sites on the Gallipoli Peninsula by half a million Allied soldiers, many of them from Australia and New Zealand (ANZAC). None of the Allied forces breached the Ottoman lines. In January 1916 Britain evacuated 100,000 men. The operation cost the Allies 252,000 sailors and soldiers, the Ottomans 165,000. Both sides suffered horribly from drowning, dysentery, frostbite, septic wounds, tetanus, and trench fever. For many historians, Gallipoli became a “paradigm of military folly.”

What had gone wrong? Poor staff planning resulted in a lack of reliable maps, of water ships, and of plans for disembarking. Failure to account for the Ottoman’s ally, Germany, allowed Berlin to bolster Fifth Army, to lay nine mine belts across the Straits, and to transport U-boats in sections to Pola and Cattaro in the Adriatic, where they were reassembled and towed to the Dardanelles.

Consequences came quickly. The main architects of the campaign, Winston Churchill and John Fisher, were removed from office, as were Horatio Kitchener and Herbert Henry Asquith. Among the defenders, Gallipoli brought Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to prominence. In Australia, the landing on 29 April is religiously celebrated as “Anzac Day.” As the country’s great poet Banjo Paterson wrote, “We’re all Australians now…The mettle that a race can show proved with shot and steel.”

By Robin Prior,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A decisive account of the dramatic Gallipoli campaign of World War I, with a devastating assessment of its pointless losses

The Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16 was an ill-fated Allied attempt to shorten the war by eliminating Turkey, creating a Balkan alliance against the Central Powers, and securing a sea route to Russia. A failure in all respects, the operation ended in disaster, and the Allied forces suffered some 390,000 casualties. This conclusive book assesses the many myths that have emerged about Gallipoli and provides definitive answers to questions that have lingered about the operation.

Robin Prior, a renowned military historian,…

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Book cover of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

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