Review: “To the Last Man” by Jeff Shaara

To the Last Man: A Novel of the First World War by Jeff Shaara. Ballantine Books. 636 pages.

Several years ago, as a writing exercise, I proposed a story universe where World War I never happened and an Imperial Europe was united to dominate the globe with only the United States to stand against them. One of my students, and later, a history professor colleague, told me that it could never happen. World War I was inevitable. I never quite understood that until I read this book, but on the other hand, like most people, I didn’t really know that much about World War I.

To the Last Man was an eye opener. Jeff Shaara is probably my most favorite historical novelists, with maybe the exception of David McCullough. Shaara is the son of Michael Shaara, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Killer Angels, about Gettysburg, and Jeff completed the trilogy with Gods and Generals, and The Last Full Measure. He’s written books about World War II and other historical periods as well.

What Shaara does well is balance an overview of the big picture of what’s going on in the war with the nuts-and-bolts details that happens to the trench soldier and the biplane pilot. He does that by choosing the characters carefully who are telling the story. In this situation, the story is told by real, historical people. He gives the reader a summary of what happened to each of them after the war at the end of the book. Those characters include John J. Pershing, the general who led American forces in Europe; Roscoe Temple, an American Marine from Florida; Raoul Lufbery, an American volunteer pilot flying with Lafayette Escadrille; Baron Manfred Richtofen, the most famous German flying ace of the war.

I normally don’t enjoy books that get into the politics behind wars, but I found it fascinating to learn what Pershing had to deal with, both in Washington where he had multiple politicians and military people trying to control the war effort, and in Europe, where British and French wanted the Americans to simply turn their soldiers over to them to be used as cannon fodder. It covers famous battles that Americans were involved in such as Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, as well as other bloody conflicts such as Battle of Mont Blanc Ridge and the Crossing of the Meuse River. It was a real eye opener to me, from a lot of perspectives, as it showed the war from the political side, from the trenches, and from the air.

The depiction of Baron von Richtofen, the Red Baron as most people know him, was especially well done, as was the story of Raoul Lufbery, a little-known American ace who was one of the few men to survive the Lafayette Escadrille to train other Americans for the fledgling American Air Service, only to be tragically shot down at the end of the war. Eddie Rickenbacker, probably the most famous American ace from the war, stated that he owed everything he was to Lufbery.

If you are interested in knowing more about World War I, or just want some entertaining historical fiction, get this book. I highly recommend it.

I give it five out of five stars.