Our world was made by the Great War. In big ways, with the creation of the Soviet Union, the bitter peace at Versailles that laid the foundation of World War II and the partition of the Ottoman Empire that recklessly established the multi-sectarian Iraq. In small ways: "No man's land," the trench coat, "shell shock," the tank. In France and Flanders (where "the poppies blow"), farmers still regularly call out demolition crews to dispose of unexploded ordinance. The Great War destroyed four empires and killed the Western idea of progress that had endured since at least the Enlightenment.
When my grandmother spoke of "the war," she meant the one that began in August 1914, when she was 25. She never forgave "Kaiser Bill" for, by her lights, starting it. Or, for that matter, Woodrow Wilson. At least 20 million soldiers and civilians were killed. The 1918 flu pandemic, which followed the war like a judgment from the almighty, claimed as many as 100 million.
And yet, a century ago right now, hardly anyone expected the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to lead to apocalypse. Royals were murdered with some regularity. At worst, Austria-Hungary would punish Serbia. It had been a century since the last general European war and nations were tightly connected in the first great era of globalization. Monarchies were bound by blood. In 1910, Norman Angell wrote The Great Illusion, arguing that economic integration was so total that war was impossible (n.b. Washington and Beijing today). Most people agreed with him. And yet, as the month progressed, a war beyond anything the world had ever seen was inevitable.
The long summer of 1914 was said to have been especially beautiful. That's the way my grandmother remembered it. "The old world in its sunset was fair to see," wrote Winston Churchill.
With all this in mind, I offer these books that are essential to understanding the conflagration. I'm sure readers will provide others.
• Dreadnought, by Robert Massie, a magnificent account of the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany. Plus the follow up, Castles of Steel.
• Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914, by David Fromkin. Building off Fischer, Fromkin places the blame on the German generals. I am more with Clark, but this is a good read.
• The World Crisis, by Winston S. Churchill. No Great War collection is complete without this history by one of the key participants. The writing is as marvelous as you would expect.
• The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell. How to describe this tour de force synthesis of life in the trenches and English literature, written by "a pissed off infantryman" from World War II? It is one of the finest books of the 20th century and a must for every educated person.
• The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, by Sir Alistair Horne, the riveting account of one of the most famous, and foolish, battles of the Western Front.
• The Doughboys, by Gary Mead. A serviceable survey of the American combat experience in the war.
• The First World War, by John Keegan. Another survey, but written by one of the great military historians.
• The Pity of War, by Niall Ferguson. Before he went full-on right-wing kook, Ferguson produced this provocative counterfactual. His main argument: The war was Great Britain's fault. Worth wrestling with.
• The Long Shadow: Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, by David Reynolds. Another good one on consequences is Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age.
I did not mention Barbara Tuchman's 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Guns of August. It was the first book on the war I read, as a teenager. But compelling as it is, I would argue that its details have been overtaken by fresher scholarship. It still may be worth a look.