2014 has been the year of 1914. In the same way that Christmas puddings appear in supermarkets in October, many of the contestants in the publishing race for 2014 defied starter’s orders and came out pre-maturely in 2013. What has been striking about the bumper crop of first world war books is the terrifically high standard.
One of last year’s books which I’ve only just got round to reading in paperback is David Reynolds’s Long Shadow (Simon & Schuster, £9.99). Because the Great War seemed so meaningless, killing so many British soldiers for reasons which remain remote and obscure even today, it has always been especially difficult for the British to make sense of it. Yet of all the European countries Britain dealt with its consequences — mass democracy and the rise of Labour — remarkably well. What the hell was it all about? asks Reynolds, and the answers he delivers are always interesting and sometimes brilliant.
Margot Asquith’s long-awaited Great War Diary 1914–16 edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock (OUP, £30) takes the lid off No. 10 during Asquith’s difficult wartime premiership, and gives a compelling picture of Liberal England and the belle époque in meltdown under the nightmare stresses of a war that no one could have predicted or planned for.