Great Reads About the First World War
By Australia War Memorial Historian, Aaron Pegrum
The best part about joining a tour to the Western Front, is that everyone loves sharing and hearing from like-minded travellers who are genuinely interested in learning about the First World War. Our tour leader, Aaron Pegrum, also really enjoys hearing why people are interested in the Western Front – mainly because it helps him connect an abstract historical event with people, places, events and stories. Our recent tour was full of very keen and enthusiastic people which is fantastic.
Now that you’ve experienced the Western Front, the First World War will now start to make a lot more sense. When you read about Pozières, Fromelles, Bullecourt, Villers-Bretonneux and Polygon Wood, you now have a point of reference
of where the fighting took place and some idea of what it was like. Tredding the battlefield is essential for understanding the Australian experience; and it could certainly grow into a healthy obsession.
Some people have Aaron about a list of books on the First World War that he highly recommends. So here are his top ten reads:
- Bill Gammage, The broken years: Australian soldiers in the Great War. This book first appeared in the early 1970s when there was very little interest in the First World War. This is the story of the First World War told through the letters and diaries of Australians soldiers who fought and died in it. I believe this is by far the most engaging book you will ever read about the First World War.
- Martin Middlebrook, The First Day of the Somme. This book focuses on the fighting on 1 July 1916 – it’s a book about the British, but if you want to learn more about the Somme campaign of 1916, this is the one to get. Much like The broken years, it uses personal accounts to flesh out what is a complex and confusing battle. Another highly engaging read. (this is the one I mentioned when we went to Lachnagar Crater at La Boiselle)
- Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel. This is a memoir written by a German soldier who fought the British and the French for four years on the Western Front. Jünger’s memoir demystifies those on the other side of No Man’s Land to the point where one realises the Germans were just as scared and horrified by the realities of combat as British and Australian troops were.
- Peter Pedersen, The Anzacs. If you want a comprehensive book on Australians in the First World War, this is the one to get. Similarly, Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli and The Great War are fantastic reads – the latter, though, is a massive tome of several kilograms. Don’t read it in bed for fear of serious frontal lobe damage!
- Paul Cobb, Fromelles 1916. A brilliant account of a catastrophic battle. I believe some Australian authors (like Patrick Lindsay) can get a bit carried away with Fromelles, but this British historian tells the story as it was with some of the personal stories of the men involved.
- Richard Holmes, Tommy. This fantastic book my one of Britain’s most eminent military historians looks at the experience of the British soldier on the Western Front – Tommy Atkins, as he was known. A great snapshot of British soldiers at war.
- E. P. F. Lynch, Somme Mud. A fictionalised memoir of an Australian soldier who fought on the Western Front. A great read, but keep in mind it’s a fictionalised memoir.
- Walter Downing, To the last ridge. An extremely raw account of an Australian who served in the 57th Battalion. It was Downing’s account I read at VC Corner Cemetery at Fromelles.
- While I’m recommending memoirs, I’ll fess up and include the one I had a hand in re-publishing: William Cull, Both sides of the wire. Cull was severely wounded and captured at Malt Trench (I pointed out where Cull was captured when we were on the Butte de Warlencourt). He spent 18 months in German prison camps, returned home, and died as a result of his wounds in 1939.
- Michael Molkentin, Fire in the Sky. A fantastic book on the Australian Flying Corps in Mesopotamia, Sinai-Palestine and on the Western Front. If you liked reading Biggles when you were a kid, you’ll like Michael’s book.
Aaron is always happy to help out with any research questions you may have; and please, if you’re in Canberra, pop in and say g’day to him. He’ll go have a brew with you.