Some Old Favorites About World War I

by pamela on July 22, 2014

“Cheshire Regiment trench Somme 1916″ by John Warwick Brooke – This is photograph Q 3990 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 1900-13).

Recently I shared some of the most interesting new books about World War I that have landed in my mailbox.* Wonderful though many of the new books are, it would be a shame to forget the many excellent older books available.

Here are some of my favorites:

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) is a rich discussion of the intersection between World War I (specifically the British experience on the Western Front)and literature: both the literature that came out of the trenches and subsequent attempts to remember and mythologize the war.

Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That (1929 or 1957–the two editions are very different) is one of the classic memoirs of the war–a bitter, unsentimental and darkly comic farewell to pre-war England. (On opening Fussell at random, I see that he describes Goodbye to All That as the “stagiest” of the war memoirs. Read it for yourself and tell me what you think.) Depending on where you hang out, you may know Graves as the author of The White Goddess, a poetic study of European myth and/or as the author of the popular novel I, Claudius, which the BBC turned into an equally popular television series in 1976. Personally, I found The White Goddess unreadable and only watched one episode of I, Claudius.** But I was totally absorbed by Goodbye to All That. Graves does not simply paint a picture of his experience of the trenches. He sets that experience within the larger context of his life before and after the war, showing what members of a particular class and caste lost in the war. Reading Graves, the phrase “the lost generation” takes on richer meaning.

Samuel Hynes’s A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (1990) looks at what he calls the “Myth of the War”, which he describes “not as a falsification of reality, but an imaginative version of it, the story of the war that has evolved and has come to be accepted as true.” In many ways a pendant to Fussell’s work, A War Imagined considers the construction of the war by contemporary artists and writers–both officially and unofficially–and the post-war construction of monuments and anti-monuments. This kind of thing is intellectual meat and drink to me.

Last, but definitely not least, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962) remains the standard against which I measure popular history. If I could only have one book about World War I on my shelf, it would be this one.*** Writing with transparent, often witty, prose and an eye for the telling detail, she takes a familiar story–the first month of World War I–and makes it into a page-turner. Hmm, I think I know what I’m taking to read on the road in September.

Looking at this list, I realize that it is Anglo-centric, with a Western front bias–a reflection of my academic roots in British imperialism. Can you help me shake that up a little?

*One of the side benefits of writing History in the Margins is that publishers send me review copies of books. My basic policy on this is that I only review them if I honestly think they are good. On the other hand, just because I didn’t review something I received doesn’t mean it’s not good: I simply may have gotten to it yet. Time is short and the To-Be-Read shelves bulge with choices.

**Though on later reflection, the soap opera qualities that put me off were in fact a pretty realistic depiction of Roman dynastic politics at the time. I wonder how many classicists write for the soaps?

***Though Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow would come a close second.

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Shin-Kickers From History: Sojourner Truth

by pamela on July 18, 2014

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in 1797 as Isabella Baumfree. She spent her early life as a slave on estate in New York*–running away when her master failed to keep his promise to set her free. Active in both the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, she was one of the most important human rights activists of the nineteenth century.

Quite frankly, nothing I say about Sojourner Truth–or human rights–could be as powerful as a speech she made at the women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

As far as I’m concerned, that equals the Gettysburg Address for power and truth.

* A useful reminder that the northern United States was not innocent in the matter of slavery.


soccer The World Cup is over and some of you are suffering from soccer* withdrawal. Unlikely though it may seem to those of you who know me in real life,I have some reading suggestions that will let you feed both lingering soccer mania and history curiosity.

Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains The World: An {Unlikely} Theory of Globalization looks at soccer as both an international phenomenon and as rooted in “local cultures local blood feuds and even local corruption”. (Think British soccer hooligans, the role of soccer in the Balkan Wars of 1990s, and the success of Jewish soccer clubs in 1920s Europe.) How Soccer Explains the World is a wonderful piece of social/historical reporting and totally accessible for the soccer-challenged.

David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer directly addresses historian Eric Hobsbawm’s observation that “The twentieth century was the American century in every way but one: sport.” Goldblatt describes his work as the only history of the modern world in which the United States is “a transatlantic curiosity rather than a central attraction.” Beginning with ancient games involving a man kicking a ball and ending with soccer in Africa post-Cold War, The Ball is Round is an exhaustive account of history as a game, with a heavy emphasis on “American exceptionalism”.*** At 900 pages, this is a work for the hard-core soccer fan, or perhaps someone with ulterior motives for learning more about the game.

A lagniappe: Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is a brilliant account of one fan’s relationship to the game, set in a specific time and space. This one is worth reading even if you are sports averse.


*Or football, depending on where you kick the ball.

**A term normally applied to the relative failure of socialism in America. And now that I think of it, there are some interesting parallels between the distribution of soccer and socialism in America. Any social scientists out there looking for a research topic?



by pamela on July 11, 2014


A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from a reader in response to my post on historical periodization that cried out for for further thought. He raised the question of timelines, saying he found it useful to look at “what was happening elsewhere when this was happening to me and mine”.

Personally, I love timelines–and I buy books of historical timelines whenever I get a chance.* I’ve actually worn out two copies of Bernard Grun’s remarkable Timetables of History, thereby justifying buying up-dated editions.  One of my other favorites is Who Was When by Miriam Allen de Ford and Joan Jackson–I’m keeping my eye out for a second hand copy of the third edition at a reasonable price.

But no matter how good a printed timeline is, there is nothing quite like building your own timeline for a specific project. In addition to the events directly related to my project, I’ve learned to include a “universal history” line for events happening outside my story. It’s amazing how often that line gives me an unexpected insight.

I started building timelines when I was writing my senior comprehensive paper in college because I was having trouble keeping track of how events from different parts of the British empire fit together.** I found a new use for timelines when I started writing fiction and discovered that I have a tendency to squeeze extra days into the week.*** You can always tell when I’m in the middle of a project that has a complicated chronology, because I’ll have a timeline taped somewhere to my office wall. Back in the days when cut and paste was not a metaphor, I drew them by hand on sheets of legal pad turned sideways.  Then I used Excel, which was more legible but clunky because spreadsheets and timelines are not really the same. These days I’m using Aeon timeline software, which is pretty amazing.

Anyone else out there a timeline fan or creator? Recommendations welcome.

* What can I say? Reference books are a weakness. I also snap up historical atlases and virtually anything at a second-had book store called “a dictionary of some subject I’m vaguely interested in or think I might be interested in, or that I ought to be interested in or that looks cool”.

**If someone has published a good (or even a bad) timeline of European imperialism, please let me know.

***If I could just figure out how to do that in real life….

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We have a winner! (And a recommendation)

by pamela on July 8, 2014

Thanks to all of you who threw your names in the hat for a chance to win a copy of Nick Lloyd’s Hundred Days. I’m glad I didn’t have to pick on merit: you sent me links to World War I-related blog posts, quotations from Wilfred Owen, a plea on behalf of a local library, and an Armistice Day birthday. In fact, your reasons for wanting the book were so good that I gave all of you two chances. The winner is: Bart Ingraldi.

Bart is the author of a blog that I very much enjoy: He writes about history using ephemera* as a springboard: as he describes it, his exploration of ephemera is “A trip that’s part archaeology and part sociology, both with a touch of whimsey. Even if you’re not interested in ephemera (and I bet you are), do yourself a favor and read his recent post on Sarajevo: “Two Bullets–Eight Million Dead” . It is one of the best of the thousands of posts that came out on the anniversary last week. Better than mine by orders of magnitude.

*”Everyday paper artifacts intended for short time use”


Happy Fourth of July

by pamela on July 4, 2014

Fourth of July Picnic, Rogers, Arkansas (MSA) 4th of July picnic in Rogers, Arkansas, ca 1904

If my readers outside the United States will bear with me for a post:

Dear Americans: Take a moment in your celebrations to remember what we’re celebrating:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Picnics and fireworks are nice. Civil rights are better.

Image courtesy of the Missouri State Archives


Curiosity’s Cats

by pamela on July 1, 2014

Research is a big part of my writing work day. In fact, I read far more words than I write in my constant search for a topic, a story,* and/or a telling detail. I have special glasses for the hours I spend on the computer, and eye drops that I generally forget to use. (Excuse me, while I pause and lubricate.)

More importantly, I have library cards for five local library systems, am an active user of Interlibrary Loan, and frequently max out my borrowing privileges. Because contrary to popular opinion, you really can’t find everything on the internet.** Sometimes you need to browse the shelves, skim an index, read a primary source or an authoritative history, succumb to the allure of the archives, or ask a reference librarian for help. Some of the most satisfying moments of my career have occurred in libraries.***

Bruce Joshua Miller, editor of Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research, makes no secret of his discomfort with researchers’ increasing dependence on digitized sources. The 13 essays he commissioned for the collection share a common mandate: tell a story about a research project that required techniques beyond computer searches. The resulting collection could have been an extended Luddite shudder against technology or a simple exercise in nostalgia. It is neither, though several of the essays include a variation on “I’m not a Luddite, but…” and the final essay (Marilyn Stasio’s “Your Research–or Your Life!”) uses nostalgia to pointed effect. Instead, each piece explores the complicated and often personal relationship between writers and their research.

The essays, written by novelists, historians, journalists and a filmmaker, vary widely in topic, tone and method. Some give detailed accounts of methodology, like historian of science Alberto Martínez who gives a step-by-step account of the convoluted and creative process tracking down a single elusive fact: the date that Albert Einstein had the intuitive flash that led to the theory of relativity. Others, like essayist Ned Stuckey-French, who describes research as a way of life for his entire family, are more impressionistic. Despite the book’s focus on non-digital discoveries, several also celebrate new opportunities of on-line digging.

Whether funny or poignant, describing the insights that come from getting lost in a strange city or the development of a research path over the course of a career, the essays in Curiosity’s Cats celebrate the joy of research on-line and off.

* Topic and story are not the same. This is the first lesson any writer must learn if she wants to survive.

**Though you can find more than you may realize if you know how to look. I take a lot of pride in my on-learn search skills.

***Not to mention some of the most embarrassing. If you meet me in person ask me about the “sexist man alive” incident at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. Let’s just say librarians don’t always whisper.

Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Why Sarajevo?

by pamela on June 28, 2014

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo–the long-tailed and tangled fuse that began World War I. And I’m not going to go through the details of the assassination itself–though it would be a nail-biting thriller, complete with close calls and bad-decisions if we didn’t all know how it ends. Instead I’d like to spend a little time on the backstory.

Balkanization–Not Just a Metaphor

In 1878, at the end of the Russo-Turkish War, the Great Powers effectively forced the Ottomans out of the Balkans, which had been part of the Ottoman empire for centuries. The treaty signed at the Congress of Berlin gave Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria their independence. For many Serbs, independence was not enough. They felt that had been cheated of territory that should have been theirs, most notably Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had been part of Serbia in the distant past.* Serbia managed to seize more territory from the Ottomans during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bosnia-Herzegovina remained out of reach.

Still officially part of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia-Herzegovina was occupied and administered by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Control of the Slavic province was a mixed blessing for Austria-Hungary. On the plus side, it kept Bosnia-Herzegovina’s largely Slavic population out of the hands of both the increasingly powerful kingdom of Serbia and the empire’s major political rival, Russia. On the other hand, the addition of more Slavic peoples to Austria-Hungary’s multinational mix threatened to unbalance the empire’s uneasy pattern of ethnic rivalries.

Under Emperor Franz Joseph’s Dual Monarchy, created in 1867 in an ill-conceived attempt to win over Hungarian nationalists, Germans and Magyars in the twin kingdoms of Austria and Hungary ruled over larger populations of mostly Slavic peoples. Inspired by the creation of the new states of Germany and Italy, Austria-Hungary’s Slavic populations, including Serbian nationalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina, demanded political concessions that ranged from the freedom to use their own languages instead of German or Hungarian to succession from the empire. Many sought change by legal means. Others resorted to terrorism. Romanians nationalists resorted to bombs in response to Magyar attempts to suppress the Romanian language in Transylvania. Italian extremists blew up a railway tunnel in Trieste. And Serbian terrorists made six attempts to assassinate Austro-Hungarian officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1910 and 1914.

The Black Hand Makes A Fist

In 1911, Dragutin Dimitrijevic the Serbian army’s head of intelligence, formed a secret society of extreme Serbian nationalist called Unity or Death, more commonly known as the Black Hand. Its goal was to re-unite the countries that had once been part of the medieval kingdom of Serbia. Terrorism was its preferred weapon. By 1914, the Black Hand had 2500 members, most of them junior officers in the Serbian Army. Only about thirty of its members lived and worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Early in 1914, Dimitrijevic decided to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Archduke wanted to reorganize the empire, replacing the Dual Monarchy with a federalist system that would give the empire’s Southern Slav citizens, including those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, an equal voice with Germans and Magyars. Dimitrijevic feared political recognition of Slavs within Austria-Hungary would weaken their desire for succession and make it harder to gain support for a pan-Serbian state.

Historic Echoes on June 28
An opportunity for assassination presented itself that June. The Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia invited Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo to observe the imperial army’s annual maneuvers on June 28. The choice of date demonstrated how little the imperial bureaucracy understood or cared about Serbian nationalism. June 28 was an important date in Serbian history. Some would argue that it was THE important date: on June 28, 1389, a Turkish army defeated Serbian forces at the Battle of Kosovo, ending the medieval kingdom of Serbia and beginning five centuries of Ottoman rule.

From the perspective of the Black Hand, the Archduke’s arrival in Sarajevo provided the perfect target at the perfect time.

*The idea that “It was ours once several hundred years ago, so it should be ours today” almost guarantees conflict between neighboring states.


Drowning In Books About World War I

by pamela on June 25, 2014

trench warfare

It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least in the circles I hang out in) that major historical anniversaries are celebrated not only with documentaries, blog posts and re-enactments, but with the publication of Big Fat History Books. It makes perfect sense from the point of view of writer and publishing house: the centennial of World War I is a ready-made if slightly crowded PR hook for a new book about the war.

From the point of view of a historically inclined reader, blogger, and occasional reviewer, it can be a tad overwhelming. A solid phalanx of World War I books has taken over my TBR shelf, shoving their way ahead of all the other fascinating unread books piled up in my office.* Old favorites are demanding their fair share of attention. Then there are the novels. And the poetry. In short, I could spend the next year reading and writing about nothing but World War I until next June, when the Battle of Waterloo will demand its share of attention.*** But I won’t. I’d get bored. And worse, so would you.

So I’ve decided on an interim step. Below are mini-reviews of three new WWI books that have caught my imagination. I’ve read enough of each of them to feel secure in recommending them to your attention–and enough to know I want to finish them.

Philip Jenkins. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.
Possibly the oddest the WWI books to appear in my mailbox so far, The Great and Holy War looks at the role religion played in shaping the course of the war–and the peace. Jenkins looks at how the powers involved-Christian and Muslim alike-used the rhetoric of crusade, holy war, apocalypse and Armageddon. He considers the Angel of Mons, the Christmas Truce, the legend that dead French soldiers rose to fight alongside their comrades, and the British push to conquer Jerusalem in the Palestine campaign. This is fascinating stuff.

Sean McMeekin. July 1914: Countdown to War.
This is a gripping account of more familiar ground: a day-by-day political history of the weeks between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I. I picked up July, 1914 with an initial feeling of “ho-hum”, then was caught by the quality of the story-telling. It’s a cliche to say that a work of history reads like a novel. In this case, it’s true.

Geoffrey Wawro. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire.
I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the failed melting-pot of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A Mad Catastrophe is an in-depth examination of how the empire’s decline at the end of the nineteenth century set the stage for Sarajevo and the impact of its weakness on the eastern front. If you’re interested in the decline and fall of empires, this one’s for you.

*Actually, they piled up in my old office. In my splendid new office they are arrayed neatly on shelves, alphabetized by the author’s last name. This makes things easier to find if I know the title or name of the author. It’s still a trick to locate a book when I know only that “memory” is in the title and the author’s first name is Paul.**

**At this point a clever use of Google is the only solution.

***Save the date: June 18, 1815.


The Nile

by pamela on June 22, 2014

n The Nile:A Journey Downriver Through Egypt’s Past and Present, popular Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson leads the reader on a historical travelogue that moves from Aswan, home of the river’s First Cataract, to Cairo’s Gezira Island, from Paleolithic rock drawings to the Arab Spring.

The voyage that shapes The Nile is not simply metaphorical. Wilkinson floats down the river on a dahabiyah–a large luxury boat descended from the royal barges of the pharaohs. Aware that he is simply the latest in the historical line of travelers drawn to Egypt by its climate and its ancient civilizations, Wilkinson engages with their commentary as well as his own observations, creating a palimpsest of Nile voyages in the process. (Ancient Greek historian Herodotus and 19th-century British journalist Amelia Edwards are particular favorites.)

Because Wilkinson organizes his work by geography rather than chronology, his narrative is anecdotal almost to the point of stream of consciousness. His combination of scholarship and storytelling allows him to draw unexpected relationships through time. The ruins at Kom Ombo lead to a discussion of the crocodile god, Sobek, then on to ancient Egyptian tales about the dangers of crocodiles, a modern Crocodile Museum, and the impact of both 19th-century Western tourism and the Aswan Dam on the crocodile population in Egypt. Occasionally such temporal leaps are disorienting, but for the most part they are illuminating. Once a reader has learned to navigate the rapids, The Nile is worth the effort.


This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.