Book review: Strachan, Hew, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

17 Jun

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, edited by Hew Strachan, is a solid assemblage of international contributions from historians across academia. It is in the diversity of subject matter and writing styles from this collection of authors that gives this book its unique edge and appeal. While I am not particularly keen on “illustrated histories,” nor a consumer of “history in pictures”-type offerings, the limited number of photographs, drawings, and other artwork included with these contributions was effective in helping to convey each author’s overall message.

From a format perspective, I enjoyed The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War and the book-as-product. Strachan’s accomplishment achieves at two levels, in my opinion: the book as a selection of topics written by different historians; and, the utilization of a limited number of illustrations. While maintaining a sense of timeline, each chapter comprises a unique and no less significant aspect of the Great War. As the Great War was the first global event of “Total War,” The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War succeeds with key chapters including “Economic Warfare,” “Economic Mobilization: Money, Munitions, and Machines,” “Women, War, and Work,” and Mutinies and Military Morale.” I found these chapters to be essential in my overall synthesis of the Great War’s history. This literary format works well for me, since The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War is much more than just another “history of the Great War – Princip to Versailles,” but a collection of essential topics. Strachan was wise in my estimation to keep the amount of illustrations to a minimum – less is always more; better to keep the “books of pictures” to popular history.

The obvious beneficial usage and placement of illustrations in Chapter Sixteen’s “Propaganda and the Mobilization of Consent”, by J.M. Winter, of the University of Cambridge and Pembroke College, notwithstanding, other chapters succeed quite well with the addition of poster reproductions and photography – which I enjoyed. The reader’s emotions (and mine) are tapped from the beginning in Chapter Eleven’s “Women, War, and Work,” written by the late Gail Braybon, through the effective usage of photography – and fine writing. This chapter’s images of British women toiling in the fields, in an engineering workshop, or as a railway worker helps support the concept of entire populations mobilizing for “Total War.” (Gail Braybon’s passing in 2008 is not noted in the The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War’s “Notes on Contributors” as its first date of publishing was 1998, and not revised after the 2000 Oxford paperback edition.) I enjoyed this chapter on the largely overlooked subject of women’s roles during the Great War. It was this interest that led me to research Gail Braybon, who interestingly enough was in academia not as a professor but managing the computing facilities at the University of Brighton prior to her illness and subsequent passing.

In keeping with the book’s format of individual contributors, the book does not offer an overall thesis to be argued and supported, per se. In the opening introduction, Strachan wrestles with the concepts of global war, total war, and modern war. While not particularly important to the book’s direction, Strachan’s insistence that the Great War was none of the three aforementioned concepts, and at the same time all of them, makes for a thought-provoking introduction. As a collection, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War becomes a set of contributions speaking to these three concepts highlighted by Strachan – global, total, and modern war. In this regard, Strachan’s book does succeed in supporting his argument, through the work of others, that the Great War was a global, total, and modern war.

An intriguing concept that I previously had not given much thought to was the extent and importance to which propaganda played by countries in both the Entente and Central Powers. It only makes perfect sense that to help drive a population towards total war there must be a centralized message in the form of propaganda, state-run or otherwise, to unify a consensus. Winter notes in Chapter Sixteen’s “Propaganda and the Mobilization of Consent”, “The Great War spawned the most spectacular advertising campaign to date. Its product was justification of war.”[1] Germany and the United States were at the forefront of propaganda through both film and print in this war and the next – an important concept in total war that hasn’t received much discourse.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War gave me an even greater sense that the Great War was very much a total war – one that the belligerents were not prepared for. I think that the format lends itself to this end very well – individual readings from different authors; each with their own voice. This was more dramatic and successful, in my opinion, in conveying the sense of total war; as opposed to our other texts.

Strachan’s The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War has helped me to understand European and American political history in the decades following the armistice of 1919 through a greater understanding of the peripheral issues that occurred during the Great War. I would however, have liked to have read more about the war on the Eastern Front; more than what was included in Chapter Nine’s “Eastern Front and Western Front, 1916-1917” by Robin Pryor and Trevor Wilson. The minimal history provided of Russian General Aleksei Brusilov and his “Brusilov Offensive” of 1916 and the July 1917 offensive left me wanting for more as written by Pryor and Wilson. This brief chapter (nine) felt very much like a “survey,” unlike other chapters in Strachan’s compilation. The Russian Revolution of 1917 could have received more attention by Strachan as well as it related to the Russian military on the Eastern Front. Chapter Seventeen’s “Socialism, Peace, and Revolution” by John Horne did an excellent job of overall synthesis on the revolution, I was looking for just a bit more on the exigent circumstances that led to the Russian exit from the battlefield. But I am nitpicking here – The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War is a very good book, and not meant to be an in-depth history of the Great War. This book will however remain in my vast (and growing) collection of history books on the First and Second World Wars.


Strachan, Hew. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Page references are to the 2000 edition.


[1] Hew Strachan, The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 216.

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Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Book Reviews


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