History’s Greatest War

This is certainly the oldest of the World War One histories I have, and it was around the house the longest. And when I say house, I mean growing up.

It was my maternal great-grandfather’s and seemingly purchased about 1920 by him.  I looked at it once or twice as a child but never read it though I did read some massive picture book about the war, probably by Reader’s Digest or American Heritage.

As an adult, though, I only started to become seriously interested in the war in 2002.

This book was reprinted in 2012, but I’ve linked to the original edition since the reprint doesn’t seem to have pictures — one of the selling points of the original.

As to the American Legion, let me emphasize that the American Legion is a fine organization. In my youth, I participated in Boys’ State and their speech contests. However, like many institutions and people in America during the 1930s, they expressed admiration for Mussolini. Fascism, of course, wasn’t then associated so much with violence or racism. (Italian Fascism never seemed to have a racial element.)

From what little I know, I suspect the Legion admired the social unity of Fascism if not its other explicit core idea, the unity of political and economic interests through governmental control, if not ownership, of businesses.

However, unlike many organizations, the Legion seems to have improved with age.

I’m also more skeptical now of my assertion that it was written specifically for the American Legion. Instead, I think it was intended for a general American and Canadian readership. Across from the title page, is a place to post a “Soldier’s Photograph” below the “Roll of Honor”. On the sides of that space are a star and maple leaf, seemingly American and Canadian symbols.

From December 13, 2009 …

Review: History’s Greatest War: A Pictorial Narrative, S. J. Duncan-Clark, 1919.img192

As history, this book leaves something to be desired. The opening chapter – “The Red Trail of Prussia” – seeks to blame World War One solely on Prussian ambition. The German people were the “docile tools of the Prussian dynasty”, a dynasty that only knew force to realize its ambitions. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not, according to this book, the work of the Serbian Black Hand but a Prussian plot. Likewise, the resolve of the Russian court was weakened, allegedly, by pro-German sympathies. (And in the failed prophecy department, we are assured that Russian will soon take its place among the democratic nations of the world.)

Seemingly written for the new American Legion and published shortly after the final peace treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, this book emphasizes America’s role in the war. Thus, we get almost nothing on the sub-Saharan Africa theatre of the war or its casualties. The book emphasizes heavily the brief time America fought in the war. Only 157 out of 384 pages cover the war before America entered it – though Canadian involvement is also emphasized. The organization is puzzling. “The Aftermath of the Armistice” and “The Price of Victory” chapters are before the “How the Central Powers Fell” chapter. (I suspect the type was set before a last minute expansion of the book.) Sometimes, the prose repeats itself.

So, if you’re looking for a good, one-volume introduction to the history of WWI, this isn’t it. I suggest you try John Keegan’s An Illustrated History of the First World War or, if you really want to go in depth, Hew Strachan’s first volume in the Oxford history of the war, The First World War: Volume I: To Arms  or the excellent dvd series The First World War scripted by Strachan.

On the other hand, this book has some peculiar virtues. It has lots of interesting and rare pictures of everything from dogs carrying cigarette cartons in the trenches to Italian bike troops – though those photos and paintings are sometimes tenuously connected to the surrounding text. Communist propaganda has all but taken it out of history, but we are reminded that a democratic Russian government did exist between the Czar and Lenine (as he’s called here). The prose shows some other contemporary usages and names that have since become obsolete. There is a precise tally of the war’s cost in lives, money, and equipment – though I don’t know what the scholarship of 90 years has done to those figures. Several key American military leaders wrote chapters: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels about the United States Marines in the war, General John J. Pershing about the American Expeditionary Force, and Admiral William S. Sims on the war’s naval battles. And, after long hearing just how harsh the Versailles Treaty was, it was interesting to actually read it – and note the references to things like the Koran, a sultan’s skull, Jan Van Eyck paintings, and astronomical instruments. This book shows what many American’s must have felt about the war shortly after it ended. Unfortunately, that includes the whiff of fascism that surrounded the Wilson Administration and the founding of the American Legion. (For more documentation on that, see Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.)


The World War One Page.

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