01/14/2015 02:37 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

My World War I 101

The line of people who know more about World War I than I do could stretch longer than the Great War's 450-mile scar that runs through Europe to this day. But I have learned a bit, and some book recommendations gently forced on others over the holidays got me to thinking -- what would my list of WWI books look like, at least so far, and in what order would I recommend them? Before we jump in, a quick word for the hardcore historians out there: please be kind; I entered this process as a lay person, will leave as one, and share my road map only so other amateurs can find their own path of inquiry.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let's set the table with some societal, political, ethnic and military context. Two books tower over others in this task. Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark (2012, Harper Collins) is a sweeping but detailed dive into the circumstances churning below Europe's surface in the first decade of the century. At first annoyed by the title, by the end it seemed perfect as he artfully illuminates the personalities that slowly walk towards conflict while still believing its inevitability is in the distance instead of in their immediate future. Much can be learned from his extra eye for detail in all matters Serbian and Balkan. Close second is Margaret Macmillan's The War That Ended Peace, (2013, Random House) who excels in tracing the tremendous wealth and stability of Western Europe in the early 1900s and how each country's perceptions of its neighbors brought about policies, from France's loans to build up Russian railroads to Germany's entry into a naval arms race with Britain, that could appear either defensive or as preparations for offense depending on the beholder. One country's moves to defend itself was another country's perceived "mobilization," and both of these authors bring great authority and detail into their heavy volumes on these and many other factors.

This brings us to the summer of 1914, and no review of that period can be complete without Barbara Tuchman's seminal The Guns of August, (1962, Random House.) Here, she anatomizes the actual mechanics of the War's first sweeping months with day by day, country by country breakdowns of telegrams, late-night discussions, crisp descriptions of Belgium's unexpected resilience to Germany's Schlieffen Plan as it swept west and France's frantic but ultimately firm response to it. Her opening passage, which frames the whole conflict around the personalities marching in the funeral of England's Edward the VII in May 1910, has a flowing style that is pure pleasure to consume. From Tuchman's accessible scholarship on August, Max Hastings fills out the rest of the year in Catastrophe 1914; Europe Goes to War, (2014, Vintage.) Hastings brings us from the hectic summer months when breezy prognostications still expected a gentlemen's war of a couple weeks, and into the murky, reluctant No Man's Land of January 1915, when both armies on the Western Front stopped moving but kept killing. It is their lack of forward motion that resulted in the export of the conflict into potentially softer targets 100 years ago this month -- into North Persia, Muscat, South Africa, and the Turkish advance on Egypt through the Sinai.

Two books help us pull back the lens and think about the things unmentioned in the larger more sweeping works. The first, Peter Englund's The Beauty and the Sorrow, (2011, Knopf) belongs in the tier listed above of must-read history. Here Englund uses personal papers, diaries and letters to re-construct the daily lives of 20 individuals, ranging from a 12-year-old German school girl to a surgeon from Boston volunteering in Allied field hospitals, along with the daily accounts from soldiers, sailors and nurses, and traces each through all four years of the war. The Beauty brings the reader deeper than movements of armies and diplomatic intrigue and provides us that most elemental of historical lenses; that of the individual. Approaching the unexamined from a completely different angle is Jack Beatty's The Lost History of 1914, (2012, Walker) which extrapolates a handful of scenarios that, with relatively minor tweaks in the flow of events, could have resulted in a much different war. These range from the potential drain Irish secession would have had on the British Expeditionary Force's capacity to go to Flanders, to speculation about Pancho Villa embracing Germany's Zimmerman Telegram and invading the U.S.'s southwestern border states, which Germany promised Mexico could envelope if he helped distract the snoozing industrial giant long enough for France to fall. While Beatty's book does not crack the tier of must-read, his effort to rewind and walk down a couple corridors of historical possibility is useful.

Having visited the context, kick-off and human dimension, we are well-served by digging into a military-centric overview that envelopes the entire war. For this I found B.H. Liddell Hart's World War One In Outline (Faber & Faber, 1936) to be a compact fly-over of the battlefields and troop movements, and he proves particularly effective in framing conflict zones around the critical but far less sexy matter of shipping, since without commerce and supplies no country or army can compete, let alone win. Complementing that 30,000 foot view is Over the Top (1919, Knickerbocker Press) by Arthur Guy Emprey which is an American soldier's often humorous work-a-day account of marching, rations, rats, redundant layers of command and woven throughout are piercing, immediate moments when guys don't make it.

Finally we return to Margaret MacMillan for Paris 1919 (2002, Random House) where the human flaws that brought about the war are on just as prominent display in the divvying up of the rubble. In addition to the conflict itself almost destroying European civilization, this rich narrative details how flawed humans exacerbated the destruction by establishing capricious and paranoid peace terms. The U.S. and Britain were already eyeing Russia and its revolution with suspicion, three royal empires lay in ruins, the affront extended to the Japanese provided kindling that would ignite 20+ years later, and thrown into that mix are smaller actors with long reaches into the 20th century like Ho Chi Minh and Maynard Keynes.

Many reading this can undoubtedly generate better lists than I present here or a better summary of the books presented above, but I share these mainly in hopes that some of my enthusiasm for the subject matter becomes infectious. As with many subjects, the more I learn about World War I, the less I understand, but I do know that understanding the last century can help us navigate this one, and it is in that spirit I offer my World War I 101.