Of all the books published on the First World War, this volume is perhaps unique in that it tells the story of the war not from the perspective of history, but as it unfolded daily, through the letters, diaries and personal accounts of those who lived through the war – most of which have never been published before.
From the Prime Minister, Henry Asquith, and his cabinet, to the soldier fighting at the front and parish priest ministering to his parishioners back home, this book discloses the story of the War through the unique perspective of personal accounts. Chronicling the build up to the War, we see the Prime Minister agonizing over the decision to take Britain into the conflict, the concerns of his ministers as they debated the burning issues of the day in sessions of cabinet, as well as the Prime Minister's thoughts about the emerging conflict expressed to his closest friends and confidants in private communications.
A special feature of this book is numerous entries by Lewis Harcourt taken from his unauthorized diary, which broke the rule forbidding private records of cabinet discussions. Harcourt's diary takes us into the heart of cabinet meetings, where war aims and strategy were debated. In it, we see the conflict between Winston Churchill and other cabinet members, as well as character sketches of some of the leading players.
Drawing on the unparalleled archives of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the book also includes letters and diary entries from soldiers at the front. We see the young Harold MacMillan as an officer serving in the trenches and writing home to his parents about his experiences. The letters of the junior officer T E Lawrence provide an insight not only into his wartime experiences but also into his ideas and beliefs about the war.
War poetry and memoirs, often brilliant and moving, have become the main source for our understanding of the war. The accounts in this book – from politicians, civilians and soldiers – provide alternative perspectives, and convey what it was really like to experience the first two years of war.
An accompanying exhibition curated by the author, Mike Webb, The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches at the Bodleian Library runs from 18 June to 2 November 2014. Free admission.