Recommended Audience: Middle school through adult
Newbery winner Russell Freedman offers this quick 160-page summary of “the war to end all wars.” There is much to like about this book. It is loaded full of pictures that help to visually tell the story of World War I.
I have always wanted to know more about this war. Through all of my years of education I remember very little study on the topic. World War II was a result of World War I and Freedman does a good job explaining the connections to young readers in the last chapter of the book.
I was struck by how willing much of Europe was to enter this war. Freedman discusses this in chapter 3, “In the capital cities of all the combatant nations, the outbreak of war was greeted with emotional displays of patriotism. Crowds thronged the streets, singing their nation’s songs and cheering every military unit that passed.” On top of the excitement, many thought that the war would be very short. Freedman cites a young French student who was confident that the war would last only two, maybe three months.
One of the things I had a hard time wrapping my head around in this book was the massive devastation, misery, and loss of life that this war caused. Some battles saw the loss of what would be the equivalent of small cities in just days. During the Battle of the Somme one day saw 20,000 men killed and another 40,000 wounded. There were over one million total lives lost in this battle which lasted from July 1, 1916 to November 19. At the same place in 1918 another 700,000 were killed.
In addition to all the lives lost, there was much pain and suffering experienced by both sides. World War I saw the first effective use of poison gas in any war. Both sides of the war used gases like chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas. Chlorine and phosgene stop the lungs from absorbing oxygen. Mustard gas burns and blisters the skin, causes temporary blindness, and floods the lungs which eventually leads to a lingering and painful death.
If you weren’t killed by a bullet or a bomb, and the poison gas didn’t get you, there was the inhuman conditions of trenches. “Officers and men alike shared their trenches with rats and frogs, with slugs and horned beetles that burrowed into the trench walls, with lice that infested every man’s clothing. Rats as big as cats scampered across sleeping men’s faces at night and chewed through their clothing to get at the food in their pockets….Blood-sucking lice, breeding in the seams of clothing, spread from one man to the next…Ninety-five percent of British soldiers coming off the line were infested with lice…Lice carried an infectious disease called trench fever…which put thousands of men out of action. Trench foot, a painful fungal infection, was brought on by standing in cold, wet mud for days…scores of men could not walk back from the trenches, but had to crawl, or to be carried by their comrades…Added to these indignities was the awful stench that hung over the frontlines…The reek from rotting corpses lying in shallow graves…”
Freedman does an excellent job of telling the story of the war with extensive quotes from people that actually experienced it. You could hardly go a page in the book without finding some actual person to confirm the author’s claims. I do wish that Freedman had made the book a little longer. I would have liked to see a little more depth on the political realities of the countries that led to the war. Overall, this is a great book for young adults.