As a history major and now a history teacher, I’ve read a lot of history books. While I have found most of them fascinating, only a handful are written in an engaging assessable manner that I could actually use them with high school students. Adam Hochschild is probably my favorite historian. First his King Leopold’s Ghost captivated me as he described the colonization and exploitation of the Belgium Congo. Next he provided a true understanding of what life was like in the Soviet Union under Stalin in Unquiet Ghost. I’ve used excerpts of both books with my classes over the years. He has another book (Bury the Chains) that I have, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
Hochschild’s next book is on World War I (one of my favorite subjects). He recently compared the Battle of Somme with the current war in Iraq:
“The Big Push” is a phrase that came into the language with another troop surge that was supposed to bring another war to victory. For months beforehand, the Big Push was how British cabinet ministers, propagandists, generals, and foot soldiers talked about the 1916 Battle of the Somme.
The First World War had been in a deadly stalemate for the better part of two years. A string of horrific battles had revealed the huge toll of trench warfare: Defenders could partially protect themselves by building deeper trenches, concrete pillboxes, and reinforced dugouts far underground. But when you went “over the top” of the trench to attack, you were disastrously vulnerable — out in the open, exposed to deadly, sweeping machine-gun fire as you clambered slowly across barbed wire and bypassed water-filled artillery-shell craters.
So, what did the Allies do? They attacked. At the time, in numbers of men involved, it was history’s largest battle. The plan was to break open the German defense line, send the cavalry gloriously charging through the gap, and turn the tide of the war. The result was a catastrophe.