Review: To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War ~ Jeff Shaara

To the last manMoving on from the American Revolution and the Civil War, Shaara (The Glorious Cause, etc.) delivers an epic account of the American experience in WWI. As usual, he narrates from the perspective of actual historical figures, moving from the complexity of high-level politics and diplomacy to the romance of the air fight and the horrors of trench warfare. Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing commands all American forces in France in 1917-1918 and must prepare his army for a new kind of war while resisting French and British efforts to absorb his troops into their depleted, worn-out units. Two aviators, American Raoul Lufbery and German Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) fly primitive aircraft in an air war that introduces new ways to die. And Pvt. Roscoe Temple, U.S. Marine Corps, fights with rifle and bayonet in the mud and blood of Belleau Wood and the Argonne Forest. These men and a supporting cast of other real-life characters provide a gruesomely graphic portrayal of the brutality and folly of total war.

4 Thumbs-UpThis Author is well-known for writing historical novels, and they have continued in that vein when writing this book which centres on the often forgotten war that was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’.

Essentially this novel is two books in one, which can then be divided into three parts. The first 1/3 of the book focuses almost exclusively on the air war taking place at that time, with the main protagonist for this section being the notorious Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen and the French-born American ace, Raoul Lufberry. Both these characters are brought vividly to life allowing the reader to build on what knowledge they may already have of these larger than life fighter aces.  Through the Authors words we are given a look at what may have been the driving forces behind them being as successful as they were, and also at the same time brought to the realisation that, in the end they were just human like everyone else involved in this conflict.

The middle 1/3 of the book, the reader is introduced to Gen. Pershing and a young marine private named Roscoe Templer, which begins the second book where the first leaves off with the deaths of Richthofen and Lufberry. Through the eyes of the Private, the reader sees the horrors of trench warfare from a ‘boots on the ground’ perspective; this resulted in me wondering why this truly hadn’t been a catalyst to end war.

The final 1/3 of the book focuses exclusively on the exploits and perils of the ground war.  Here the Author really comes into his own, showing his outstanding research skills and ability to translate history into a form many readers would find more palatable than actually doing the research themselves.  Through the Authors words the reader is transported to the water filled hovels that the ground troops called home; they can smell the death and decay that permeates the air and everything around these soldiers.  The reader is able to feel the sheer terror that they must have experienced when waiting for the whistle to blow that would signal them going over the top to an almost certain death.  But this descriptive skill is not just limited to those on the ground, the Author extends this to the flying aces in their flimsy fabric coated aeroplanes and the knowledge they also carried with them on a daily basis that this time might just be their last in the air.

Throughout this book, whether you are reading about the regular Soldiers and Pilots, or the Officers back in the rear you will be affected by this war in a way that may come a little way to the feelings of those who experienced it both at home and in France.

Whether you are a novice or a World War I aficionado, I would highly recommend this book, and if you have never read anything by this Author this is a great place to start.