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

Holger H. Herwig Author Of The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World
By Holger H. Herwig

The Books I Picked & Why

Blood on the Snow: The Carpathian Winter War of 1915

By Graydon A. Tunstall

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

Why 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.”

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Caporetto 1917

By Cyril Falls

Book cover of Caporetto 1917

Why 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.

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The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916

By Alistair Horne

Book cover of The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916

Why 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.

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Jutland: The Unfinished Battle

By Nicholas Jellicoe

Book cover of Jutland: The Unfinished Battle

Why 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.

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Gallipoli: The End of the Myth

By Robin Prior

Book cover of Gallipoli: The End of the Myth

Why 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.”

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