The impact of what happened in the First World War lingers and will never be lost to time, not even in distant memory. So many lives, so many heroes and so many stories still left to tell. The problem is they can’t be told unless it’s at the expense of others. That’s the unending tragedy: we lose the full extent of what was sacrificed because not everything could be recorded or witnessed. For those of us who were decades away from even being born, we’ll never even know what we are missing.
Author Jack Batten has taken several first, second and even third-person accounts and given each a unique voice in the just released non-fiction The War to End All Wars. There are some famous fighters and also some famous battlegrounds, but what makes this book both riveting and important is that there is precious little editorial glorification of war, the kind of tactic that many writers utilize in order to make the awful seem fantastic and even poetic.
Take for instance the story of flying ace Billy Bishop, a well-known name if ever there was one. He encountered the famous Red Baron on one attack run in April 1917 but this barely takes any precedence in the chapter on air battles. It features the exploits of Bishop and several others at different times and various missions. The stories are all based on fact and unembellished. It’s fairly impressive that Batten even has the play-by-play account, complete with who swerved when and who shot first.
There are others, including the battles at Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Gallipoli and the Somme, at land, at sea, and for one of the first times, in the air. This is the perfect book for the amateur historian, even the ones who just like to envision the heroism and tragic bloodshed. Batten covers all of it in a surprisingly concise way, complete with poignant photographs. If it weren’t for this book, I likely never would have learned about people like Arthur Currie, a great military strategist who would have had nothing to do with the war if he had managed to keep his real estate business solvent.
But more importantly, Batten goes back to before the beginning of the war to end all wars. It was the spring of 1914 when a young Serb from Bosnia got involved with an assassination conspiracy. While the book includes a few tales to provide the back-story to set the stage, the ball didn’t start rolling until Gavrilo Princip was fatefully and completely by chance in the right spot at the right time to fell Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife with a few shots from his gun.
It’s been years since I first heard about Princip but the author writes with such clarity that even this murky business makes sense. Strangely, the entire plot sounds like the John F. Kennedy assassination, complete with a convertible car, a change of routes and a very poor chauffeur.
This book isn’t very long but seems especially compact considering all that’s contained within. Batten is an excellent writer and it’s my hope that he continues this with a tome about the Second World War.
The War to End All Wars: The Story of World War I
by Jack Batten