Unlike the Korean War, World War I is not a forgotten war. However, it is one that is not frequently remarked upon or written about. There have been a few movies over the past years about it, such as 1917, and video game Battlefield 1 took place during World War I, but those are about the only pop-culture references I can think of. Therefore, about the only way to learn about the First World War is to read military history books about it. The Great War by Cyril Falls is one such book.
For the amateur military historian that wants to learn about World War I, there is no better book (that I have read and can recommend) than The Great War by Cyril Falls. There are other great ones, such as The Guns of August or some sections General MacArthur’s Reminiscences, but they are generally about a specific event or time period of the war rather than an entire overview of the whole war and its various theaters.
Therefore, for reasons you will read about in this summary and review of The Great War by Cyril Falls, I think that it is a book you should read. You will learn about the politics behind World War I, the various theaters it was fought in, and the most important battles of each theater. It is a bit dense and not for the uninterested. But if you are someone who aspires to learn about one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, then this is the book for you.
Summary of The Great War by Cyril Falls
The Great War by Cyril Falls is structured in a way that makes it easy to read and keeps the reader’s interest.
Overall, it is divided into four parts; one for each year of the war. Within each part, Falls discusses the different theaters of the war: the war in the air, the Battle for the Atlantic, the home front, the war in Mesopotamia, the fight in the Balkans and Dardanelles, the Italian Front, the Eastern Front, and, of course, the most famous part of World War I, the Western Front.
Withing those sections, Falls writes about the various leaders involved, how campaigns and casualties suffered during them related to the political objectives of the war and changed the situation on the ground, what technological and tactical innovations took place, and what the major battles and events of each year were.
That means that, while The Great War by Cyril Falls is chronological, Falls does not dwell on any one subject for too long. One minute you might be reading about a massive campaign and thunderous artillery barrages that lasted for days, and then a few pages later you could be reading about the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia, a naval action such as the Battle of Jutland, or a swirling dogfight in the air. In structuring the book that way, Falls is able to show in The Great War how different events and battles, whatever theater they were in, related to each other and affected the end outcome of the war.
But just because Falls alternates between aspects of World War I in The Great War, that does not mean that it is a confused jumble of a book. Each chapter focused solidly on one topic. As a result, while you might read about something else in the next chapter, you do not have to bounce back and forth between subjects in each chapted.
Finally, for this summary of The Great War by Cyril Falls, I think it is crucial to state that Falls was not bound by any conventional views of the generals involved in the war. He defends Haig’s prosecution of the war, gives a fair depiction of Germany’s actions and strategy, discusses the various mistakes and brilliant achievements of each commander.
My Take on The Great War by Cyril Falls
I thought that The Great War by Cyril Falls was a fantastic book for a number of reasons.
The first is, for the reasons given in my summary of it, I was held in rapt attention the entire time that I read it. I was entranced by his depiction of the huge battles of the war, namely Verdun and the Somme, remained in suspense as he described the dogfights in the air and the swirling flurry of naval combat, and felt a profound sadness as he described the massive casualty rates of the war and the brutal manner by which the flower of each nation’s youth was snuffed out by total war.
Additionally, like The Two-Ocean War, The Great War by Cyril Falls does an excellent job of showing how technological and tactical innovations changed the war, both from the perspectives of the way it was fought and how progress could be measured.
For example, early in the war, airplanes could be used for reconnaissance, but had difficulty communicating with ground troops or artillery, so their effectiveness was limited. Additionally, the only armament carried on them was the occasional rifle or pistol. But by the end of the war, the major combatants had fleets of huge bombers, had reliable wireless connections between planes and ground forces, and had squadrons of fighters dogfighting over the battlefield. Airpower, a staple of modern warfare, came into its own over the fields of Flanders and the trenches of France.
Another example is the invention of the tank, another crucial piece of modern war fighting equipment. Before its invention, infantry remained bogged down in the trenches and unable to achieve breakthroughs through trenches and barbed wire. After the creation of the tank and the production of mass quantities of it, however, infantry forces on the Western Front were finally able to breakthrough the lines that had remained mostly static for most of the war. The best evidence of that is in Fall’s depiction in The Great War of the last hundred days of combat and how innovations like the tank changed the war.
Finally, I remained entranced by The Great War by Cyril Falls because of its scope. Most military history books that I have read recently, such as An Army at Dawn, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, The Father of Us All by Victor Davis Hanson, and Blitzkrieg deal mainly with specific events and sections of the wars they describe.
The Great War, however, like Inferno: The World At War by Max Hastings, deals with a war in its entirety. From the fields of Flanders to the Russian Tundra to German East Africa to the beaches of Gallipoli, Falls describes the major events of World War I and gives a sense of its scope. And, unlike The German Army on the Eastern Front, it is chronological, which I appreciated.
There was one aspect of The Great War by Cyril Falls, however, that I did not particularly like. That was his full-throated defense of British General Douglas Haig. Other wartime commanders, from Foch to Falkenhayn, he treats fairly. He depicts their faults and their genius.
Haig, on the other hand, he defends far too vociferously. While General Haig might have been treated somewhat unfairly by post-war histories, he did, after all, preside over the mass slaughter of Britain’s youth. Perhaps what Falls says in The Great War is true and Haig did attempt to use new tactics to break the stalemate. But, up until Germany had been weakened by other means and the tank was produced in sufficient quantities, the stalemate on the Western Front remained and Haig threw division after division at unbreachable lines. He was, after all, one of the “donkeys” in the famous line that the British World War I infantry were “lions led by donkeys.“
Despite that, I thought that The Great War was a terrific book and is one that I would highly recommend. Other than his depiction of Haig as something of a genius, Falls does a remarkably good job of giving a fair treatment to both sides and telling the whole story about what happened during the war and why.
As I noted in my thoughts on The Great War by Cyril Falls, there was only one aspect of the book with which I disagreed and that I disliked. That made it a pretty good book, in my opinion. It is dense and not particularly concise, although that is to be expected of a book about a world war. And, despite that, the subject matter is interesting and as varied as a book about World War I could be.
So, if you are interested in World War I and want to learn more about the war that ended empires but decided little, then The Great War is a book you need to read. It will give you a good overview of the entire war and its many theaters and major events.
Finally, if you liked by recent review of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson, then The Great War by Cyril Falls is a book you need to read alongside it, or at least near the same time. As Ferguson describes it, World War I was the war that fatally weakened the British Empire, the Empire that the sun never set on. The Great War shows why that was; the war was bloody, expensive, and resulted in few gains for the victor. What a waste.
By: Gen Z Conservative