There is no denying that Paul Ham is a skilled historian. His research for this book is thorough and meticulous. He has a very firm grasp of all the events that built up and eventually lead to the war and the players involved. This book is very detailed and gives a very complete explanation of the causes of World War I.
While as a history text it does succeed, in every other way this book fails. It is billed as a narrative account and it is anything but that. The book is packed full of references and quotes. This is great if you need to as a reference source for a college paper, but not so great if you just want to read it. Although there is no doubt that Mr. Ham is a skilled writer that skill is purely academic focused and not made for entertainment. The book is incredibly dense and slow to read. Not that it isn’t interesting. For hard core history fans there is good information here. The big issue is that there are more enjoyable ways to get the information.
The subjects covered in this book are far from unique. Other writers have covered the same ground and done so in a much more enjoyable fashion. When put up next to something like The Guns of August which makes many of the same points, 1914 just doesn’t hold up. Barbara Tuchman managed to give us the same information but in a truly narrative way that is significantly more readable. I didn’t find any of Ham’s conclusions unique, and many of the “myths” about the war I would never consider myths. Anyone who has enough interest in history to read this kind of book already knows that the “myths” he describes aren’t correct. People that believe in these “myths” would never read this book and if they did would never finish it.
The other big issue is that the way he tells the story comes off as pretentious. There were times when it felt like Ham went out of his way to quote French poets and Italian artists. I get that he was trying to give a feel to the way people saw the world just before the war, but it felt more like the author saying “look how smart I am.” I am sure that isn’t what he was actually doing, at least not consciously, but it came off that way all the same.