World War I — in pictures (at The Atlantic online)

As you know — or will be reminded as we get closer to August — 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, “the Great War.” Clever historians sometimes call it the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It’s not a compliment to the century.

If, like me, you like pictures with your history, historian Alan Taylor has collected some great ones and provided each with an explanatory note. Kudos to The Atlantic online, which is publishing the project and (may I add) doing it very attractively. Here’s the link:

World War I In Photos

It’s a ten-part series. The first installment is up now with 45 quite varied photos. Taylor promises to add more photos periodically between now and August. I don’t have much of an idea what’s out there but I do know that candid photography reached maturity just around this time. Earlier wars were photographed with cameras that required long exposure times, so we get empty battlefields, or military men standing stiffly beside their tents, like the photos of Gardner and Brady from the American Civil War. But around 1905, Jacques-Henri Lartigue was photographing race cars and biplanes in motion. By 1914, cameras were capable of fast exposures and were portable enough to go anywhere. My guess is that WWI is the first big war to be really well photographed. Anyway, I found the photos that Taylor selected interesting, and his annotations are helpful: not too little detail, not too much. I’m looking forward to the rest and I recommend it to you, too.

French dog, in German uniform. Not sure how the dog felt about it.

Now, especially if you are an American and didn’t major in European history, odds are high that you don’t know much about World War I. And I have to admit, it’s a hard topic to get a grip on because, well, the war makes virtually no sense at all.

Nevertheless, it’s an important topic. I’m not a historian and certainly not a WWI buff, but I’ve read a little. I can recommend G.J. Meyers’ A World Undone. John Keegan’s The First World War is also excellent. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a perennial favorite, but I personally found it too detailed and have never finished it. (Maybe this year?) Michael Howard’s The First World War: A Very Short Introduction sounds promising and he does about as good a job as I suppose could be done, but I think most folks will find Howard better as a review than as an introduction. I haven’t read Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers yet, but it’s on my reading list for the next month and I’m looking forward to it.

One last link. This is not a book but an essay, and unfortunately everything but the opening paragraphs is behind a pay wall, but it’s an excellent and thoughtful essay by the great biographer of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II, George Weigel. Weigel asks the really interesting question about WWI, which isn’t “Why did it start?” but why, in God’s name, did it continue after the carnage of the first year? It might be a little trouble to get to, but it’s worth a read:

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