Russell Freedman has set the gold standard in nonfiction for young people, having won virtually every award possible (including the prestigious Newbery Medal and three Newbery Honors). His work is characterized by lucid prose, primary source research and inviting book design — elements that now seem commonplace in youth nonfiction, thanks to his pioneering influence. The text of his latest book, The War to End All Wars, is liberally illustrated with 118 images: four maps, a handful of portraits, and dozens of battlefield photographs. The end result richly combines the authority of a scholarly work, the readability of popular nonfiction and the aesthetic power of a coffee-table photo essay.
In World War I's oft-told narrative, the rash, untimely assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggers an escalating diplomatic crisis as the major European powers find themselves reluctantly but inexorably drawn into open conflict because of a tangled web of alliances and treaties. Initially, the Great War is greeted on every side with patriotic fervor, confidence in military superiority and a widespread belief in a short war. But the rules of the game have changed as new weapons of mass destruction — machine guns, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks and aircraft — wreak havoc on established conventions of war. These developments render cavalry obsolete and reduce infantry to trench warfare. Under the most adverse conditions — cold weather, poor shelter, rampant disease and spells of boredom alternating with terror — opposing armies settle in for a long, protracted fight to claim and reclaim small chunks of territory in a grueling test of endurance. The United States eventually enters the war, and the balance of power shifts, hastening the end.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Freedman's book is that amid the epic sweep of world events, it never loses sight of the smaller moments of human drama: "There was our barrage, then the German barrage, and over the top we went. As soon as we got over the top, the fear and terror left us," British Sgt. Maj. Richard Tobin notes about the nearly suicidal experience of jumping out of the trenches and charging the enemy line several hundred yards away.
You don't look, you see; you don't listen, you hear; your nose is filled with fumes and death and you taste the top of your mouth. You are one with your weapon, the veneer of civilization has dropped away and you see just a line of men and a blur of shells.
Precisely observed moments like these not only reveal the role of the common soldier but also provide the most telling commentary on World War I.
Freedman, himself a veteran of the Korean War, dedicates this work to his late father, who served during World War I with the U.S. 7th Infantry Division in France. He follows that with this quote from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides: "There were great numbers of young men who had never been in a war and were consequently far from unwilling to join in this one." The juxtaposition of the dedication and the epigram recall the most irrefutable truism: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Freedman's ensuing historical narrative serves as a powerful invitation to readers young and old to ponder not only the wars of the past — including this ironically titled War to End All Wars — but also the wars of the present.