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Behind the tangled alliances, feuding royals, and deadly battles are the nearly 100 riveting true stories of the men and women who lived, fought, and survived the first Great War. Based on the writings of soldiers, politicians, kings, nurses, and military leaders, Best Little Stories from World War I humanizes their foibles, triumphs, and tragediesand chronicles how the emergence of fervent national pride led not only to ruthless combat, but a critical turning point in the twentieth century.
Fascinating characters come to life, including:
Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnavon, who turned her husband's Highclere Castle into a luxurious military hospital for British officers (and inspired the hit television show Downton Abbey).
Otto Roosen, the high-flying German reconnaissance pilot, who was shot down not only one but twicefirst by the Canadian ace Billy Bishop and then by a fellow Germanand survived.
Arthur Guy Empey, the American who volunteered for the British Army after the sinking of the Lusitania, then wrote a bestselling memoir about life in the muddy trenches of the western front.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"WE ALL DRIFT ON IN a sort of dull cataleptic trance." Winston Churchill said it. The nations of Europe did it. Drift into war, that is, the worst in the history of mankind up until 1914.
How could they! What were they thinking? As Churchill also said in the same letter to his wife Clementine on the eve of the war, Europe was caught up in a "wave of madness" that "has swept the mind of Christendom."
Even after the first guns spoke, even after the German advance in August that provoked, in the very first days, the largest battle of the war in numbers of troops involved, people were saying, "Oh, it'll all be over by Christmas."
As a sign of that same madness, the soldiers of opposing forces along the trench lines marking the stalemated western front put down their guns-for a moment. In an unplanned, unspoken Yuletide truce that first Christmas of 1914, they put aside their weaponry, exchanged gifts, and even played a friendly game or two of soccer between the trench lines. But then, German, English, French, like smokers or alcoholics, they all fell back into their old ways and began shooting each other down again. And mercilessly so, for almost another four years.
Blood had been shed, but even so, there had been a fleeting glimpse of sanity, hadn't there?
What drove these lemmings to such suicide? Not the troops themselves, but their masters in one capital or another.
Hundreds of books have been written on that very question, and still no pat answer leaps to mind. Yes, the shooting of the archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie at Sarajevo was a factor, indeed, a specific trigger. Yes, the Austrians demanded the impossible of little Serbia, home to the overzealous assassin, a hotheaded nationalist. Yes, there were interlocking treaties, both open and secret, by which various restive nations felt obliged to help others. Yes, the kaiser's Germany obviously was in a naval arms race against Britain's dominating Royal Navy. Yes, there had been two Balkan Wars in recent years. And yes, the Russians had been embarrassed by the Japanese in their little war of 1905.
Yes, yes, and yes...but world war? Did anyone dream of the many millions of people who would be killed as a result? Did anyone dream of the new weaponry or the uses it would be put to, not only in their time but later? The bombings of whole cities during World War II that would kill as many as two hundred thousand persons, most of them civilians, in one blow, in one night of so-called conventional bombing? Or the unthinkable, the Holocaust?
What began it all? "The causes of the First World War are very complicated and broad," noted British military historian Sir Max Hastings in a newspaper interview early in 2013. "But the truth is that Austria and Germany bear the chief responsibility. They believed that they could win a war which would give them European domination." While Hastings also cautions against oversimplifying the causes, he claims, "Britain did not want a war and the Germans did."
Others argue that the assassination of Austria's Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, interpreted as an act of state-sponsored terrorism, gave Austria-Hungary a clear excuse to declare war on Serbia. "But they wouldn't have done it if they had not been given a blank cheque by Germany promising to support them," said David Stevenson, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Thus, Germany, for one, "deliberately risked a European war...Germany, Austria, Russia, and France all took steps that were dangerous, but they were not expecting the war that happened, no one premeditated that."
Great Britain, bound by treaty to little Belgium, stepped in when German forces swept into the nonbelligerent Belgium on their way to invading France.
All so true...but would the long-inert powder keg that was the Europe of the early twentieth century have been set off at all without the assassination at Sarajevo?
As the late British historian A. J. P. Taylor once noted, the basic cause of any automobile accident is the invention of the internal combustion engine, although the proximate trigger could be something like the irresponsible fellow who drove through a red light. Likewise, he also said, "In July 1914 things went wrong. The only safe explanation is that things happen because things happen."
Thus, one hundred years ago, a madness of some sort possessed Europe...and eventually dragged in the United States as well.
The war's result was big-really big. Royal houses crumbled, governments tumbled, national borders fell away-and millions died, perhaps as many as sixteen million, as a result of the new weaponry, disease, and starvation. Some sources say that all casualties, military or civilian, from combat to natural causes, could have totaled sixty million worldwide. And in the process, an old order disappeareth, a new order cometh in, socially, politically, and culturally. This has been poignantly depicted in recent years by the Downton Abbey television series about the residents and staff of a once-traditional English country home (albeit castle-like in size) before, during, and after World War I.
A big picture, yes, but all those numbers-millions dead, more millions maimed or dispossessed from home and hearth-are so easy at our distance to gloss over, with eyes glazed a bit, without quite realizing the impact in terms of individual, everyday lives, perhaps even like our own.
But that's just it. Among those millions affected by World War I were ordinary people, with small moments and stories of their own, all contributing to the rushing stream of history.
Such is history, we contend. So many best little stories.
C. Brian Kelly
Table of Contents
Seven in Wait
English Ties, German Ties
First Man Down
First or Third World War?
Saved by Nun's Bed
Churchill Happily at Work
In Flanders Fields
Love among Leaders
First Friend Lost
"Die" Was His Order
Fryatt's Unfair Fate
Four Miles Up
Fourth Man Behind
Lost at Sea
Horse Named Jezebel
Not So Safe After All
Up Close and Personal
"Titanics" at War
Lenin's Sealed Train
Aboard the Laconia
No Return Mission
Sojourn on "Plug Street"
General Who Said No
May Have Killed a Man
Shower of Silver Stars
Treating Patton's Wound
Pigeon to the Rescue
1919 and Beyond
Hero's Sad Fate
Flora, Serb Soldier
Last Man Alive
Royal Couples by Ingrid Smyer
George and Mary
Wilhelm and Augusta
Nicholas and Alexandra
Great Battles of World War I
Other Landmark Events of the War
About the Authors