This post contains affiliated links.
The Memorial to the Lafayette Escadrille, a corp of American pilots who fought in WWI with the French before America joined the war. Photo: Wikimedia
Title: To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War
Author: Jeff Shaara
What it’s about: Don’t you just love self-explanatory titles? More specifically, it is a historical fiction novel that follows four men (more or less) from the middle to end of the Great War: General John Pershing, Private Roscoe Temple, Major Raoul Lufbery, and Baron Manfred von Richthofen (A.K.A. The Red Baron.) And although the novel mainly concerns itself with these men’s stories (and WWI is too unwieldy for any single story), Shaara gives a pretty good picture of American involvement in the War.
Why did I read it: Partly because it was on sale for Kindle for $1.99 or some ridiculous amount last month at the anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Partly because I’ve been reading and listening to a lot about World War I (because of said anniversary and our recent homeschool history studies.) I like to read non-fiction, but something about historical fiction–especially really well researched historical fiction–communicates the reality of history in a way that non-fiction doesn’t often achieve. I was very impressed with Shaara’s father’s book The Killer Angels, and had heard good things about the younger Shaara’s sequels to that novel. However, at the time, I was not inclined to keep reading about war. But when I saw this opportunity, I didn’t want to pass it up.
What I thought: Shaara is a wonderful story teller who accomplishes what many historical fiction authors can’t quite pull off: communicating the history accurately while telling a good story. Too often you either get the facts at the expense of a good story, or vice versa. He also does a good job balancing the action of battle with the political situation driving the war. A few years ago I read Falcons of France to the girls, where I first was introduced to Lafayette Escadrille. I enjoyed this closer look at the hero of that corps, Raoul Lufbery. And who hasn’t heard of the Red Baron? Although of all the characters we get to know, Private Temple is the one that I think will stay with me. The outcome of one of many of his engagements: “The battalion of the Fifth Marines that had been trapped in the “box” north of Blanc Mont Ridge had numbered a thousand men. By the end of the fighting, one hundred thirty-four marched out.”
Like I said, WWI is unwieldy. Currently, I’m listening to The Guns of August a nineteen hour audiobook about the start of the war. And by start I mean through August 2014. I’m also listening to the Hardcore History Podcast series of WWI. I think we’re 16 hours in (4 episodes) and have reached 1916. And even those massive works have had to leave out a great deal. It truly was a war great in size and destruction. Shaar write of the War’s legacy,
“The numbers tell the tale. In four years of the most brutal combat the world had ever seen, nearly ten million men die on the battlefield or in the hospitals nearby. The cost in human life can be translated to the loss of more than five thousand men every day the war was fought. Thus an entire generation of young men is erased from the future of humanity.
In all, fifty-seven countries participate on some level in the Great War. The war, and the subsequent treaties that follow, radically alter the map of Europe and the Middle East. Where once were kinds and empires, from Germany to Austria-Hungary, Turkey to Russia, new governments arise, new leaders place their names in the history books.
In the United States, the cost of the war is horrifying in its own way. Over fifty thousand men die, a number than pales in comparison to the losses of the other major participants. But the American deaths occur in the relatively brief period from May to November 1918. The number is eerily similar to the losses suffered in the Vietnam War, losses that occur over a period of fourteen years. Other numbers are appalling as well. In the fledgling American Air Service, one-third of all pilots who report for duty in Europe are killed.”
I know I studied World War I in school (I remember watching All’s Quiet on the Western Front), but honestly I don’t remember much about it from school. In popular culture, World War II has been the recipient of more attention. But this war, the sadly misnamed “War to End All Wars”, has had such far reaching effects, rearranged the map, ushered in the brave new modern world, and set up so many complex and dangerous situations that we are still dealing with today. And I mean that literally. Perhaps if we paid attention to our past, we’d learn something that could help us with those situations.
Where you can get it: Here!